Bullying problem starts with coaches

There’s a video clip on YouTube of former Baltimore Ravens linebacker Ray Lewis miked up during a game against the San Francisco 49ers. The whistle blows on the play, and Lewis trots towards 49ers fullback Moran Norris. Lewis nods his head before saying the words that would forever become associated with his persona:

“It’s a man’s game! It’s a man’s game!” The second time he says it he’s stifling a sinister chuckle, words suffused with a kind of maniacal glee that makes you think he just might have committed that double homicide back in 2000.

You see, according to legends of the sport like Raymond Anthony Lewis, Jr., football is a “man’s” game. It’s a game of physical and mental “toughness.” And the kind of raw machismo that arises from the testosterone-jacked violence on the gridiron lends itself to an equally savage lexicon.

So it should come as no surprise, then, that earlier this week a video clip of a USC coach proclaiming Tennessee signee Jalen Hurd as “soft and terrible” surfaced on YouTube. On Monday, USC Athletics apologized via Twitter for the comment and immediately deleted the offending video off its Instagram account.

There is no room in college football for that type of language — plain and simple. For all the sport prides itself on molding boys into men, what type of impression would a coach be leaving if he were to say about another player that he was “soft” and “terrible?” If coaches seek to lead by example, the coach in the video has already made a fatal mistake: he teaches his players, through his attitude, to disrespect others. This is part of a culture that engenders cases like the Jonathan Martin scandal — the kind of moral ambiguity where the gray area of “building toughness” can become black letter bullying.

The perception of an athlete as “soft” is as good as a death sentence in the eyes of the football community. The words “soft” and “terrible” serve as a type of moral judgment. What the coach in the video is effectively saying by rendering these types of judgments is that Hurd has no room to improve. And probably the most troubling aspect of those words is that they were said about an 18-year-old who’s about to begin his first semester of college.

“You’re getting paid millions of dollars or a scholarship, so just shut up and man up,” goes the counter-argument. Well here’s the thing: Jalen Hurd is not getting paid millions of dollars to cope with professional stress — he’s a college student-athlete who’s looking to improve himself and earn a degree. But this is the type of speech football players have come to expect, and it’s troubling that in the midst of this macho culture the NFL is expected to be accepting of its first openly gay player in Michael Sam.

“Modern American discourse is suffering from political correctness,” says another dissenter. But the label of “politically correct” is too often applied in situations where communicative precision is sorely needed. The sentiment of political correctness is rooted in strategic communication, the type of speech or writing that aims to elicit a particular response through manipulation.

But whatever happened to conveying our emotions and thoughts accurately? Isn’t every coach charged with the responsibility to communicate precisely? Why, then, would a coach imply through judgments like “soft” and “terrible” that a player has no room for improvement? If the coach had said, “Hurd really needs to improve his toughness and his field vision,” I wouldn’t even be writing this right now. Then again, I’d be writing about two weeks early about the NFL Combine, so thank you, unnamed USC coach, for bringing an important issue into the discussion.

The language of judgment is far too easily accepted in sports, and in this age where anyone can be recording anything at any time and the dissemination of information is near instantaneous, it’s become imperative for people to begin doing away with things they wouldn’t say in public.

Instances like these force us as a society to come to terms with our emotional shortcomings and scrutinize the way we might be affecting people with our words. It’s no longer sufficient to “spin” statements from the podium during a press conference or from a post-game interview in the locker room.

Which isn’t to say that athletes and coaches should stifle their emotions altogether — genuine emotion is an important thread which runs underneath the thread of sports. There’s nothing wrong about Herm Edwards reminding us that football teams “play to win the game,” or Jim Mora Sr. screaming “playoffs?” incredulously for an infamous rant. But for a coach of young men to make such judgmental statements about an 18-year-old high schooler is a different matter altogether.

College football coaches especially need to be more accountable for the way they communicate their thoughts and emotions. Taking accountability for one’s actions and, to a further extent, the underlying emotions that motivate action, is the measure of a man. And in case we forgot: Football is a man’s game.


Euno Lee is a senior majoring in English literature. He is also the co-managing editor of the Daily Trojan. His column, “Euno What Time it is,” runs Wednesdays. To comment on this story, visit dailytrojan.com or contact Euno at eunol@usc.edu.