Grown-up bullies: Can bosses, politicians, spouses be bullies?

Grown-up bullies: Americans have become keenly attuned to bullying among children, but can grown ups be bullies too? When does meanness and harassment cross the line into bullying?

Frank Franklin II/AP
Rutgers head coach Mike Rice calls out to his team during the first half of an NCAA college basketball game, March 12. Rice was fired in early April for screaming at his players, calling them names, and kicking and shoving them.

Was a losing team bullied? Is your angry spouse a bully? How about that co-worker who's always criticizing you? Or the politicians who forced a government shutdown?

Bullies aren't just for middle schoolers. These days, they're everywhere.

In Texas last week, the football coach at Aledo High School was accused of bullying after his team won 91-0. With no mercy rule in place to stem lopsided victories, the coach even tried to minimize the blowout by benching his starters and letting the clock run uninterrupted after halftime.

A parent from the losing team accused the coach of "bullying" – an accusation that requires the school district to investigate under state law.

And while many found the accusation baseless, it's the kind of complaint that seems to have become more common thanks to national campaigns to draw attention to the real problem of bullying. There are people who use the term bullying "to get what they want. They use it as professional victims to gain power and control," says Ben Leichtling, founder of BulliesBeGone.

Overuse of the term may be an unintended consequence of the many cases involving teen suicides that have made headlines in the last few years. More attention to the phenomenon may help real victims, but there's also a risk that "words like bully and victim have just become meaningless labels for people who are seriously mistreated in school environments and in the workplace," said Malcolm Smith, a professor in the University of New Hampshire's education department who founded an anti-bullying program called "The Courage to Care."

Smith says what constitutes real bullying is measurable: Is the behavior so damaging that it interferes with the target's ability to go to school or do their job or otherwise conduct themselves safely? And secondly, does the behavior involve an imbalance of power?

Bullies in sports?

 In the Texas case, school district administrators found no grounds for the complaint, and many observers agreed.

"Of course it's not bullying. That's ridiculous! It's a game. It has people who lose. That's a fact of life," said Smith.

Which is not to say that bullying or other types of personal intimidation don't happen in sports. Rutgers basketball coach Mike Rice was fired for screaming at his players, calling them names, and kicking and shoving them.

But under normal circumstances, absent that type of behavior, losing in sports can actually be good for kids, says Nadine Connell, who teaches criminology in the University of Texas at Dallas. "It teaches you the mechanism for coping with losing, in a protected way, so that when it happens in a more serious situation – like losing your job – you've learned to deal with disappointment."

Leichtling's reaction to the Texas football game? "The coach of the good team did what he could" to mitigate the humiliation of the other guys. "If the behavior of the winning team was cruel, nasty, rubbing it in, I would call that bullying," he said. But that's not what happened.

He noted that there are other remedies for lopsided victories in kids' sports: Parents might lobby for a mercy rule or rearrange leagues so weak teams don't face powerhouses.

Connell says the football bullying charge raises another question: "How do we continue to use a term that we know represents a lot of emotional pain in such a way that it doesn't get watered down and make people roll their eyes at every little thing we call bullying?"

Bullies in Washington?

 In May, US Sen. Harry Reid, D-Nev., called Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, a "schoolyard bully. He pushes everybody around ... and instead of playing the game according to the rules, he not only takes the ball home with him but changes the rules. That way, no one wins, except the bully."

Cruz responded: "The Senate is not a schoolyard setting." He added: "Speaking the truth ... is not bullying."

More cries of "bully" were directed at Washington during the government shutdown. Accusers included Cindy Waitt, producer of the emotional documentary, "Bully," about kids tormented to the point of suicide. In a Huffington Post essay, Waitt wrote: "The tactics being used by the 'shutdown' gang are textbook bully tactics."

But not everybody thinks that political clashes – even extreme ones – qualify as bullying.

"Politics is at times confrontational," said Dan Holler, spokesman for Heritage Action, sister organization to the Heritage Foundation, a conservative think tank. "When those confrontations happen, it's not a matter of bullying. It's a matter of trying to litigate policy."

Bullies on the job?

Dr. Harold Pass chairs a committee that evaluates allegations of disruptive behavior at Stony Brook University Medical Center in New York. He says "bullying" accurately describes workplace situations where someone is targeted by a fellow employee – whether it's a doctor trying to make another one look bad or a nurse targeted by a superior.

"Bullying means intentionality," Pass said. "If a football team happens to win by a large score, it doesn't mean the players intended to denigrate, hurt, humiliate, damage, or diminish the other team. But that does occur in workplace situations all the time – in hospitals, in factories, and corporations, as well as in schools. Any place there's a power differential, where someone puts other people down, where it's done willfully, not randomly or unconsciously, that could be bullying."

Some conflicts in the workplace are more easily defined as harassment rather than bullying. "Bullying is a lot more volitional," Pass said. "People can make offhanded comments that are disrespectful," but unless an individual is repeatedly targeted, it may not constitute bullying.

Bullying elders?

No one denies that bullying among kids is a serious problem. Just look the many tragic cases of adolescents committing suicide after being tormented by peers in school or online.

But some kids have been called "bullies" over stupid pranks. Lawyer Monrae English represented three boys at a Fresno, Calif., high school accused of bullying after they created a phony Facebook page with the principal's name on it.

"They put silly stuff on there – about how homework needs to be done and something about liking 'Twilight' movies," she said. "Most of the students knew it was in jest, but the principal got irate about it and said he was personally being bullied."

The boys – good students who'd never been in trouble – were suspended. When the school took steps to expel them, their families hired attorneys. Eventually the school backed down and wiped the boys' records clean.

"It was not a great thing for the boys to do, but it was not bullying," English said. "It was completely protected free speech."

But there are other situations where adults may legitimately feel they're being bullied by kids – even their own. Social worker Sean Grover gives workshops in schools around New York City on the topic "The Bullied Parent" where parents can be seen weeping in recognition as he describes families where kids are in charge, mocking their parents, criticizing them, and making demands.

And let's not forget the bus monitor in upstate New York. After a video was posted online showing kids cursing Karen Klein out, threatening, and insulting her, a campaign to send her on vacation raised more than $700,000.

Bullies in relationships?

Leichtling, founder of BulliesBeGone, says "bullying is not only about kids. It happens all the time, in every culture, with people at every age, in every situation, and always has."

When he coaches adults coping with bullies on the job or in bad marriages, he offers the same advice used to curb bullying in schools. "You have to say, this behavior is not allowed," Leichtling said. "And you may have to get in the bully's face."

For years before he became a psychotherapist, Leichtling had a career running research labs. He says it was good training for the anti-bullying work he does now.

"Boy, I saw bullying in science," he said. "It's not an ivory tower. Academia is vicious!"

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