Paul Prather: Adult bullies have a warped view of strength

Contributing ColumnistFebruary 23, 2014 

We've lately seen a slew of jocks and generals behaving very badly.

Apparently, the sports world and the armed forces still promote and otherwise reward a disproportionate number of folks who, despite being adults in the chronological sense, journey through life afflicted with the emotional maturity of 5-year-olds.

To wit:

NFL player Jonathan Martin was repeatedly, humiliatingly harassed by three of his Miami Dolphins teammates, including suspended lineman Richie Incognito, according to an investigation ordered by the NFL.

The report found that the three Dolphins in question aimed racial insults at Martin, not to mention spewing lewd, violent sexual threats against his sister. Others in the Miami locker room were similarly treated. It was like middle school on steroids.

Also, a recent piece on the New York Times' website, "My Coach, the Bully," by Jan Hoffman, highlighted commonplace aggression and verbal abuse by high school coaches against young players.

Hoffman's article showed that women coaches can be about as abusive as men. I guess tantrums aren't just a symptom that a doofus is overdosing on testosterone.

The Washington Post's website reported Jan. 28 on the abuse of subordinates by many military leaders, such as Air Force Maj. Gen. Stephen D. Schmidt, a "profane screamer, (who) ran through six executive officers and aide-de-camps in a year." Schmidt retired, the Post said, "after an Air Force inquiry concluded that he was 'cruel and oppressive' and mistreated subordinates."

The same article named a slew of flag officers — interestingly, again, nearly half of them women — who've been relieved, demoted or retired for similar excesses.

I found myself slightly taken aback.

I wondered how isolated these nincompoops must be to have missed the cultural sea change in the past generation. Childish, tyrannical fits of pique — much less outright threats and bullying — aren't acceptable anymore, anywhere, are they?

Where the heck were Incognito, Schmidt, et al? Do they not watch television? Read newspapers? Scan the Internet? Have they never heard of Bobby Knight?

Their misbehaviors, in and of themselves, decidedly aren't new.

Four decades ago — it feels like a thousand years — I played football through grade school, junior high and high school.

In those days, the practice field was a tough place, and not just because you got blocked or tackled. If you played sports, you got screamed at by coaches, cussed at, maybe smacked. You had your manhood graphically insulted in front of your buddies.

The locker room could be rougher. Older players hazed younger players. The hazing was demeaning, sometimes violent, sometimes, by today's standards, criminal.

Like many guys, I considered all this the norm. When it came my turn, I'm embarrassed to say, I briefly did some hazing myself, until I quickly grew out of it and quit acting that way.

But that's what being a jock often meant. That's how guys carried on. (Back then, sports was almost entirely a male domain.) A real man was cruel, crude and pugnacious.

I don't want to overstate this. It was a different era, a different culture. I don't think I was permanently scarred by it. Also, I was at times coached by, and played alongside, other men and boys who were witty, self-effacing, protective and kind.

Still, for years after high school, I'd hardly watch a football game. It brought back memories far more troubling than pleasant.

Eventually, when I had a son of my own, I subtly discouraged him from becoming too involved in sports.

He was a happy, gentle, caring kid. I didn't intend for the goodness to be knocked out of him by some yahoo with a whistle or some older kid nursing a sadistic streak.

He did participate in sports here and there: Pee wee soccer, Little League and Babe Ruth baseball, youth league basketball. Mainly, his coaches and teammates seemed cut from a healthier cloth than what I remembered.

Slowly, I decided people had learned something. They'd figured out that you build a better athlete — or a better soldier, or a better human of any kind — through calm, reasoned teaching and encouragement than through tirades, threats and degradation.

But maybe they hadn't. Obviously, some Miami Dolphins, some high school coaches and some U.S. military officers missed those memos.

It might be that the Incognitos and busted generals of the world are to be pitied as much as despised. Bluster, brutality and condescension speak largely of the perpetrators' daddy issues, I think. (Yes, people have mommy issues, too, but sports and the military being traditionally male domains, I suspect we're dealing with daddy issues there.)

Deep inside themselves, abusive pro players, coaches or generals likely remain wounded little boys or girls who never got the love and validation they needed from the old man. They've matured physically, but still are trying — in all the wrong ways — to prove their worth. They rage to win. They're terrified to lose.

Having been wronged by the biggest guy they knew, the man they longed to please most, they wreak revenge on others. When they see the vulnerable, they see themselves, the part of themselves they loathe, the kid who was afraid and lonely.

If that smacks of nickel psychology, I believe it's true nonetheless. Adult bullies have a warped view of strength, a model probably rooted in their early sense of frailty.

Genuinely strong people can coach a team, or block a linebacker, or lead a brigade without forfeiting their humanity or anyone else's. They don't have to reassure themselves by picking on others; in fact, they can help and encourage the weak.

Paul Prather is pastor of Bethesda Church near Mount Sterling. You can email him at

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