28 October 2013
Bullying and competition
You may have heard the story out of Texas about a parent filing a complaint against the high school football team that beat his kid's team by a 91-0 score. I imagine that most coverage and commentary on the story finds the complaint absurd. The most many observers might concede is that there should have been a "mercy rule" that would have allowed officials to cut the game short once it had proved uncompetitive. That conceded, I suppose most people see the complaining parent as a sore loser for treating a team game, however unequal the result, as a case of bullying. For what it's worth, the parent is not saying that the opposing players bullied his boy or his teammates; he doesn't accuse the winners of rough play or taunting from what I've read. The complaint seems to boil down to an assertion that "running up the score" as the winning team did is self-evident bullying. Again, most people, or at least most sports fans, will reject that idea. To the contrary, I've seen at least one suggestion that the defeat could prove a character-building experience for the losers, if it will help them deal with the disappointments that must come inevitably in adult life. There's no reason to reject that argument altogether, but apologists for the winning team will go too far if they draw a line categorically separating bullying from athletic competition. I don't intend to suggest that the winners did bully the losers on the gridiron, but I also don't want to concede that competition and bullying are mutually exclusive phenomena. It may be popular now to think of bullying as some thoughtless form of cruelty that's an end unto itself, but there's also something essentially (or perhaps vestigially) competitive about it. As the most notorious recent cases -- those that have resulted in suicides -- suggest, bullying isn't simply about humiliating someone, but is also a way of driving out the weak or unwanted from some social circle, rooted in an instinctual impulse to reduce the number of mouths to be fed, competitors for mates, etc. Few bullies may consciously desire the demise or even the disappearance of their victims -- many probably enjoy bullying too much -- but just as sports themselves arguably re-enact rituals undertaken for long-forgotten purposes, so it could be argued that bullies are playing for higher stakes than they realize consciously. If bullying is competitive in nature, we should acknowledge a continuum of competition in which bullying and sports are distantly related forms of the same thing. At their best, sports are a highly refined form of competition celebrating individual achievement (stronger, higher, faster) rather than the humiliation of losers, but sports have backslid in some ways from their peak of refinement. The overblown celebrations of every small success on the football field, for instance, have been compared unfavorably with the stoicism with which the old timers handed the ball back to the ref after scoring. Many sports seem to be more egotistical than before as players try to establish their brands for product endorsements. All of this makes the games less fun to watch in many ways; everything looks a lot more like professional wrestling than it should. In this sports culture, it shouldn't surprise us if someone sees his child's defeat as something far worse than the loss of a game, though one wonders whether the father feels more humiliated than the son does. His probably is an overreaction, but it's an occasion to note that while bullying is deplored, competition is still revered as a source of character, prosperity, and so on. As long as there is competition, there will be bullying. The real question may be whether "bullying" is always the cry of the sore loser, or it may be whether competition is the proper ideal for a culture where all lives flourish.