Bullying in Sport


The recent bullying scandal involving two Miami Dolphin offensive lineman (details of the story here) has taken the NFL – and the sporting world – by storm, and doing so has also brought to light a bigger issue altogether: bullying in sport.

Bullying is a major issue that is rightfully being attended to more and more in schools. Some extreme forms of it can lead to the tormentor being formally charged by police. However, while bullying is being tackled hard in school, my experience is that little is being done outside of those halls. Especially in minor hockey where in my time lacing up the skates it was treated as a non-issue despite the fact it was so prevalent.

There’s A Difference Between Chirping and Bullying 

The number one defensive argument used by supporters of the bully – or the bully himself – is "It was just chirping. We do it all the time." Yeah, that’s absolutely true, chirping does happen all the time, especially in hockey. It happens on the ice between opponents and even in the dressing room between teammates. I would contend that it’s part of the fabric of the game and is probably as old a practice as hockey itself. Heck, even when you’re playing a game or doing a sport with a close buddy you dish out little one liners to each other for fun. But chirping – which can also referred to as teasing or beaking – is usually a light, harmless insult that is meant more to inspire a laugh at of both parties than to hurt and put down the recipient. Even on the ice when chirping an opponent, the insult is never personal or thought out, it’s a just spur of the moment thing. But sometimes the chirping turns into something a lot more than just a harmless tease. It evolves from a half-joking insult to a completely meaningful one and instead of it being occasional it turns into a regular occurrence. That’s when teasing and chirping becomes bullying.

I played a total of six minor hockey seasons, stretching from "Atom" to "Midget" and during that time I never really played at too high a level, mostly skating on mid to low tier teams. Nonetheless, I witnessed my fair share of kids getting bullied by others, usually a weaker player being harassed by the stronger, "better" ones.

It was textbook stuff, really. Bullying in the dressing room and on the ice however wasn’t isolated to my level of hockey. I have a number of friends who played at higher levels – including AAA – and they echo the same thing: bullying is not limited by the level you play at, it happens everywhere. Unlike professional sports, minor hockey teams would change every year and some victims would profit from the roster shuffles and escape his attackers the next season. However what they would go through for that one year – looking back on it now – was pretty brutal.

The extent and intesity of the bullying varies from case to case, and the same can be said for the bullying in minor hockey. Some years, the dressing room was tame. There was still chirping and teasing but nothing major and no one was really singled out for too long a time. However other years, including my last year in minor hockey, there was someone singled out and grilled by the team for the full season.

In fact, one particular year I had the misfortune of witnessing a real bad case of bullying at hockey. The targeted person was one of the weaker players on the team and one of his turnovers in our first game as a team cost us the win. It didn’t sit well with the rest of the group – although it was an exhibition match – who were already unhappy that this particular guy made our team, feeling he should’ve been on a lower team. So, instead of embracing his potential and working with him to make him a better player, they chose the "make him sorry he’s on our team" route.

They coined him "TB", standing for "Team Bitch", which is a label I’ve seen stuck on one particular player every single year I played (thankfully I dodged being "TB", every year… I think). The tag actually didn’t always mean you would be endlessly crapped on by the team – in fact some years the "TB" actually embraced the nickname and became a team favourite. Yeah I know, we kids are weird.

However this particular season, being the "TB" meant this kid wouldn’t be treated as an actual part of the team. Instead, he was more of an object – there just so the rest of the guys could have something to piss on for their own amusement. As I mentioned, it was generally a couple of guys with dominant personalities and good hockey skills (compared to the rest of the group) that would label a kid as "TB" and would lead the onslaught while the rest of the team would just follow suit, occasionally dishing their own putdowns to stay favourable in the eyes of the "leaders".

I personally hated seeing this kid get grilled day in and day out, but I was always a quiet guy. Plus I knew full well that if I stood up for this kid, the attention would be shifted to me. Better them then you, right? Unfortunately that’s the way it is and most everyone would do the same thing I did – shut up and be happy it’s not you at the center of attention.

The scapegoat that year got no break from the bullying. Starting with the verbal abuse, he got "chirped" constantly. The chirps wouldn’t be the usual genre used by the rest of the guys on each other either, they would be designed to hurt. Half of the things said about him weren’t to his face but the ones that were, were just as nasty as the ones said behind his back. They would vary from his hockey skills to more personal stuff like the clothes he wore or hobbies he had. Now, the verbal assaults were one thing, but the bullying extended further than just words.

The old school bullying stereotype is a bunch of big guys physically beating a victim, but there were no fisticuffs in this case – which was too bad because this guy wasn’t a small kid and probably could’ve kicked some ass – nor have I ever seen a real fight in my minor hockey "career". A common practice in the dressing room after an ice time would be cleaning the snow off your blades and then flinging it at people.

Needless to say, this kid usually took the brunt of the attack from everyone – every single ice time. One time, one of the bullies had some extra water in his water bottle so naturally he launched it at the kid, resulting in him getting soaked and his change of clothes also getting wet. Somehow, neither his parents nor the coaching staff did anything about it. My guess, is they never heard about it. No one ratted each other out because we were a "team" and the bullied kid probably just decided to take it and hope he makes a different team next year. In practice, this kid was targeted more than others when it came to physical contact and in scrimmages, other guys took runs at him full speed with elbows flying with, in my opinion, every intent to injure. And there was no response from the coaches. I haven’t seen the bullied kid since that year and I hope he’s doing well,that year couldn’t have been a good one for him and I can’t imagine feeling like everyone is against you, which he probably did.

What really bothered me is no one did a thing about it. Granted, he probably didn’t tell anyone, but the coaches were with us most of the time and there’s no way they didn’t notice others taking runs at him on the ice or verbally attacking him in the dressing room. They probably just interpreted it as teasing and chirping and accepted it as a thing that kids do, leaving it be. There needs to be a line drawn between childish teasing and chirping, and bullying. I left minor hockey feeling that such a line didn’t exist in the organization, and that bullying was very much a problem there. I’ve been out of minor hockey for a couple of seasons now and with anti-bullying campaigns coming on strong in recent years, it’s very possible that considerable measures have been taken against it – I truly hope they have because minor hockey is for having fun and learning the game, not for being put down and having your love for hockey diminished by bullies.

Bullying was pretty prominent when I played and while not all of the cases were as bad as the one I experienced and depicted, they still happened. As we’ve learned recently via the NFL, bullying doesn’t just happen in schools and minor level sports, it happens in the pros as well. Whether it be one guy bullying another or an entire team ganging up on one individual, it all ends up in somebody getting hurt and having their experience of hockey – or any sport, really – diminished, if not ruined. The issue of bullying is a major problem in schools and is being tackled seriously there but has been more neglected in sports. It took an incident at the highest level of sport to even bring it up in mainstream society but now that it’s here, it’s time to recognize it as an issue and start fighting it as aggresively as it’s done in schools.

My experience with bullying in sport came in minor hockey, others experienced in other sports like basketball or football and it’s baffling to me that something so villainous goes undetected most of the time by parents and coaches and is allowed to continue. They’ve gone hard after bullying in schools, why not do the same for sports?

What are your thoughts on bullying? Have you seen it, lived it? Share your thoughts in the comments.

  • SoCalFlamesFan

    Good article. I unfortunately have been on both sides, being recipient and bully at different times (the later I greatly regret). I have also seen the harm bullying (both physical and emotional) can produce. Bullying is a problem and should not be allowed. One way that I have seen to curb some of the bullying is making character development a priority for a team. Players that lack self control in the locker room or ice will lack self control in the rest of their lives too (or vice versa). This though requires a coach to be aware, and able to teach and live a self controlled life.

  • piscera.infada

    I agree with the above comments. When no one questions a bully, everyone becomes complicit. I have been culpable in allowing bullying to continue, and it took a great deal of time to realize that I was in fact to blame.

    I feel like the whole situation with the Dolphins will end poorly for everyone involved. The simple fact that no one in that locker room stood-up goes further than just bullying – we don’t know the complete facts of what happened, so it’s difficult to assess fully which parties are most to blame. It boils down to being a team, and I think that’s something that been lost in this story. If you see a teammate struggling, it should be about lifting them up in a positive way – not belittling them to be “manlier”.

    That’s why this is a case that should be examined in all levels of all sport. Fundamentally, team success comes from the sum of the parts, not the individuals. Bullying and demeaning, regardless of team cliques – which will always exist in the team environment – detract from the sum, rendering the team weak and impotent. That’s what’s really baffling with the Dolphins’ case – that went entirely unnoticed by everyone involved with that locker room.

    It’s simply too easy and too stupid to say, “that’s just the way it is”.

  • NHL93

    I’ve never played on a sports team before, but unfortunately I am not surprised that bullying happens so much in this particular arena of life (take the pun as you will). Hockey in particular, is a sport that develops athletes with a hard edge, to take hits, dish out hits and power through every game. It’s physical, it’s very competitive, and because of that, it’s far too easy for on-ice aggression to develop into off-ice nastiness. Due to the overall environment, it’s also a bit harder for outsiders to distinguish bullying from “chirping”.

    Ultimately, I think this can be rectified with an emphasis on character over skill in the dressing room. Sure, it’s a sports team, but the world’s best athletes are better people than they are players. Coaches and organizations need to realize that a star sniper who is also a bully is worth less than a heart-and-soul 4th liner who looks out for everybody. Even in the NHL, class acts like Jarome Iginla are respected and valued more than pests like Sean Avery.

  • Burnward

    As a rookie you’re given a hard time, then you become a vet. It’s the circle of hockey life.

    It’s on the coaches to ensure it doesn’t go over the line.

    That being said, we can’t just coddle kids. Part of what makes the game great is the humility of players and the respect they generally have for each other. This is in large part due to any ego in minor hockey being checked every second year.

    It does go over the line at times, but it’s also a critical part of toughening kids up and making sure they know their place.

    Straight up bullying is wrong, but I think defining “bullying” within a hockey team can be a very difficult to do.

  • RexLibris

    Great article, Christian.

    I was never in situations to be bullied in a sports environment. My experiences were all first-hand, grade school stuff on account of my small stature and quiet temperament.

    Thankfully I was also gifted with a short fuse, so sometimes that helped take care of the problem.

    The trade off is that today I have zero patience for that kind of behaviour. I recognize that this is a personal perspective and that it can just as easily be the bullies in one instance becoming the victims in another (home, for example).

    Awareness is one aspect that is thankfully being emphasized. However, like you I also had experiences where I witnessed someone getting pushed around (sometimes physically) and chose not to intervene.

    I wish I had.

    That is the other aspect that I believe needs to come into play. Those that act in this way need to be called out. Especially so in team situations. If the team is treating an individual in this fashion then the team needs to be taken apart and reconstructed, even if it means the same people involved, because ultimately the dynamic needs to change and every single person in that group needs to be involved in that change.

    Empathy, doing unto another as you feel yourself, is the root cause of many cases of bullying and is likely where any solution may be found.

  • NHL93

    As kid I moved around a lot from country to country so it was very hard settling in. Being the “new kid” attracted bullies and I was always on edge the first few weeks in a new school. The one thing I drew from those early experiences was to “lose it completely” on the bullies. I wasn’t a big kid, but losing my temper and get my a$$ handed to me in fight often worked in asserting the position that for me to be bullied, they were gonna have to beat me up too. The bullies left me alone and moved on to a kid who didn’t have a short fuse.

    Reading this brought a lot of memories back. I never feared the bully, but I saw a lot of my teammates (I played soccer until 16) and classmates get picked up ruthlessly every day. I can’t imagine what that does to a person.

    And no, losing your cool and going after a bully physically is not a solution I advocate. My nephew was getting bullied and there is no way he was going to snap and pick a fight. Some kids are way too passive for that.

    I always felt the Bully had some sort of deep insecurities – and projecting their own failings onto someone else satisfied that lack of self worth.

  • RexLibris

    Thanks for this article. I saw the same thing one year in minor hockey. Unfortunately, even at an adult rec level, you always get one or two guys on each team who are physically out to hurt someone and bring out the ‘beyond chirping’ trash talk. Some rec leagues are good at not tolerating this bullying, and racist/homophobic comments, other leagues think it is just part of the game. Hopefully, we’ll move to a point where it isn’t tolerated at any level.