What the NFL Can Learn From Four Decades of Research on Childhood Bullying

Football bullies are in the news yet again. Allegations involving the Philadelphia Eagles arrived right on the heels of the Miami Dolphins scandal, and more are sure to surface. Football stars are among the nation's role models for youth. But it's time the NFL did some soul-searching on the kinds of behavior its stars are modeling.

If the NFL would take a look at 40 years worth of research on bullying, it would learn that emotions matter in everyday lives. The way a person manages and expresses feelings can make or break their mental health, as well as the effectiveness of an entire team. Here's what studies have taught us:

1. What bullying is and is not. Bullying behavior is intentionally aggressive, repetitive, and born of a power imbalance in a relationship. It can happen between kids or between adults in the workplace. It can be verbal, physical, or virtual. Racial taunts count, à la Dolphins player Richie Incognito's alleged baiting of his teammate Jonathan Martin. Homophobic slurs count, as the Eagles' Donovan McNabb is alleged to have made against his former teammate Shawn Andrews. What bullying is not is the jostling, teasing, rough-and-tumble play and conflicts among equals. Nor is it the normal evolution of relationships, nor fair and healthy competition.

2. Attitudes about bullying matter. Many Americans believe, falsely, that bullying is just part of growing up. This helps explain why many other countries have lower bullying rates than ours, yet their prevention programs aren't effective here. It may also explain why France, Sweden, Norway, Finland, and several Australian and Canadian provinces have legal measures against workplace bullying, while the US has enacted none. In cultures that don't tolerate bullying, the behavior is unacceptable and uncommon--and vice versa, as the United States' case sadly demonstrates. Until the NFL drops the "boys will be boys" attitude and denounces the bullying, it will likely continue.

3. Bullying does not toughen you up, nor does it prepare you for adulthood or anything else. In fact, it does quite the opposite. Bullied children can develop psychiatric problems that last into adulthood and undermine their health, relationships, and employment. Serious bullies, despite their social power, suffer mental health problems. Even bystanders are hurt: some collude with the bully, most look on helplessly, and many are vicariously traumatized. Worst off are children who are bullied by peers or family members and who then bully others. These children become the most aggressive and develop the most serious psychiatric problems which interfere with health, relationships and work. Incognito's reputation for bullying stretches back over a decade, and USA Today reports that since he was a freshman at the University of Nebraska, all his teams have suspended or cut ties with him. Behavior like that is not a recipe for team-building.

4. Punishment, alone, doesn't work. Punitive campaigns in schools raise awareness but don't change behavior or reduce bullying rates. In fact, they can be counterproductive. Kids suspended in zero-tolerance programs can develop worse problems, while the emotional climate of the school often deteriorates. Yet, politicians keep offering punishment as a solution. Michigan, for instance, just proposed a law that would jail schoolyard bullies for 90 days. That approach is unlikely to improve behavior. Similarly, just suspending football players for bullying will not fix the problem -- more likely it will push their bad behavior further underground while sidestepping a real opportunity to reform the profession.

5. Creating a positive emotional climate does reduce bullying. Cultivating an environment of respect and kindness at school or work reduces bullying, improves relationships, and enhances performance. It also creates a culture where standing up to cruel behavior is encouraged and supported. In this, leadership is crucial -- in our work with children, we train the adults in schools well before involving the children.
At least some coaches know that a positive emotional climate helps build an effective team. According to former San Francisco 49er Roger Craig, in his foreword to Dan Brown's book on the team, coach Bill Walsh led the team to three Super Bowl wins with a philosophy incompatible with bullying:

We pushed all the young bucks in our camp, but we didn't believe in rookie hazing. That was something Bill Walsh didn't like. He said, "Why are you going to haze these guys when you might need them?" The way Bill saw it, if you hazed rookies you might get them so scared they couldn't focus on the game. You might destroy their confidence. So Bill didn't allow that.

6. Emotional skills matter. In schools, children who learn to recognize and regulate emotions, as well as use their feelings to enhance thinking and decision-making, wind up gaining social competence, mental health, and better school performance. They have more trust in their community and show fewer negative behaviors. Similarly, adults' emotional skills in the workplace are positively related to job success and effective performance. For football players whose work involves blocking and tackling, knowing when to turn strong energy up or down is key. So is reading and responding to teammates' signals -- on and off the field. Emotional skills aren't all you need to succeed in school, work, or football. But you can't succeed without them.

Imagine if players and coaches express regret over the NFL's culture of bullying, and the bullies step down. Then imagine if football's leaders commit to real bullying prevention by teaching emotional skills to players from lower schools all the way to the national leagues. That will be the day the NFL realizes that a true football hero shows kindness and respect for his teammates -- and for the game we love.