After Miami Dolphins guard Richie Incognito was accused of bullying teammate Jonathan Martin, forcing Martin to sit out the remainder of the season, there’s been a greater focus on the environment players and coaches are creating in the locker room, and whether it’s causing dissonance for professional sports teams and players.
Evan Katz is a therapist and author of Inside the Mind of an Angry Man, a book that looks at the causes of anger in males. He has been interviewed on the topic by major news sources across America, including Fox News. Katz’s recent focus has been on professional sports and how athletes’ stardom may make them feel as though the rules don’t apply to them. The Medium interviewed Katz to delve into the topic of bullying in sports.
The Medium: After the Miami Dolphins incident, the focus on bullying in sports has increased tenfold. Why do you believe it has taken so long for these issues to be brought to the forefront?
Evan Katz: The culture of sports has allowed, conditioned, and even rewarded players [who] bully. A quick cost/benefit analysis explains it all. From a business perspective—and most sports, all the way down to the high school level, are business-oriented to some extent—it’s fiscally more beneficial for leagues like the NFL, and team owners, to invest in revenue-making projects than in prevention of the occasional reported incident, or revenue-taker. Sports leagues and many teams are reactive versus proactive in their approach to bullying and unacceptable aggression on and off the field. They only spend money on the bullying issue when they have to, when the public cries foul. At present, the former is financially more beneficial than the latter. Thus, from a business point of view, the bullying issue is an affordable business expense. I think we can see this true in any sport where money is being made both directly and indirectly, especially at the college and pro levels.
TM: Does the male-dominated environment have anything to do with this behaviour?
EK: I don’t believe so. We see more and more women doing the same. The more competitive and conditioned they are to be rewarded to perform well, the less a focus and concern conduct becomes.
TM: Why don’t athletes behave in the locker room as they would in the workplace?
EK: Because in the locker room, there aren’t consequences the way there are in society. They do it because they can.
TM: How can athletes regulate their behaviour to act in a civil manner?
EK: Starting with middle school, they need to be held accountable, the same as everyone else. They need to learn the natural consequences of life—that when you act like a bully or a jerk, people generally won’t like you. Our culture enables the best players to get a pass, not being held accountable for their actions the way the valedictorian or any other student would be. We learn impulse-control and appropriate ways to deal with conflict in middle school and high school. The best players are taught the opposite: that they don’t need to control their impulses or behaviours, and won’t be held accountable to the degree that you or I would. This isn’t true for all athletes or all programs. And society—the fans—should be held responsible as well. Society continues to minimize these behaviours as well, more often than not taking into account their performance on the field for accountability, when really it’s irrelevant both on and off the field.
TM: You say there’s a feeling of superiority for certain star players that’s fostered by the coaching staff and makes these players feel as though the rules don’t apply to them. How can coaches establish a stable environment to keep players grounded?
EK: Walk their talk: If a coach states that no one is above the rules, then they need to keep their promise, even if it costs them wins, which may cost them their jobs.
Model the behaviour they expect from players. Treat every player the same: as people who are athletes, not athletes who are people. If they don’t, then a bias towards the best performers will likely take over.
Be present. Many head coaches are so wrapped up in administrative and other duties that they rely too much on assistant coaches to be their eyes and ears.
Get educated. Coaches aren’t counsellors. They usually don’t understand the underlying causes that result in a player’s feelings of invincibility, grandiosity, entitlement, et cetera. They need basic education on signs of depression, anxiety, et cetera. Underlying emotions determine thinking and behaviour. They need to have a basic understanding of what to look for and what to do.
TM: Speaking to some varsity players, I noticed there seems to be a greater focus on team mentality in university sports and fewer incidents of bullying than in professional sports. Do the perks of fame, sponsorships, and high-paying contracts change the mindset of players for the worse?
EK: We have to remember that [postsecondary] players are highly monitored, not just by the rules of the NCAA but also by professors, college rules, et cetera. And because of their age bracket, they tend to socialize more with each other rather than spend time at home with the family, doing commercials, et cetera. Positive peer pressure is a good thing. It helps all of us stay in line with behaviour acceptable to those we want to be with and those we respect.
The pros, on the other hand, are the ones who experience the least accountability and most attention and reward. For the pros, the perks you spoke of fuel one’s illusion that they are good people [because of] their performance on the field, when in reality what they do on the field is irrelevant to who they are and how they or those close to them see them as people. My experience working with high-performance professionals has been just that. They justify poor behaviour by the validation of others as their being fantastic people, when really the validation is based on performance.
In college, the emphasis on players as [postsecondary] students and the accountability to meet academic requirements gives better reason to balance their behaviour. We have to remember that only a small percentage of college players make it to the pros. So for most, the need to get good grades and think about the future is paramount, just like [for] every other student. Those headed for the pros see the money, fame, and fortune. They look towards that.
TM: Are there any other points that you would like to voice for students and student athletes on the topic of bullying in sports?
EK: Happiness is an inside job. No matter how much validation you get from big money, fans, and media, it will never be a substitute for the true image you have of yourself. If you can’t look in the mirror at the end of the day and feel proud and respectful of who you see, then regardless of the fame and fortune you’ll be dependent on the validation of others to justify to yourself that you’re okay forever.
So be honest with yourself and act in ways that result in your respecting and liking yourself for what you think of you, not for what others think.