It is hard to recognize when you are in an unhealthy relationship. It is especially difficult when that relationship cloaks its dark side under the aspirations of self-empowerment, inclusiveness and community.
I had found a passion, challenge, and achievement in my sport and a community of athletes that I loved. I fully committed to working my ass off, dedicating my time and my money, to doing whatever it took to succeed. I pushed myself beyond the limit to please my team and the community leaders and to be seen in their eyes as a worthy member. I was confident that my derby league valued each member’s contribution as core to its success.
I had been a true believer, a passionate convert, and blind to the signs of a corrosive dysfunction that existed. I was unaware of the danger signs and the jeopardy I had placed my own body, mind and spirit into… voluntarily.
I entered roller derby enthusiastically but then I felt degraded, demoralized, and defeated.
What had I missed?
Verbal, Physical, Relational, and Cyber are types of bullying. Each share common danger signs and can be found in any size group or organization. Bullying exists from the playground to the Oval Office.
Being the direct target or being a silent bystander to the victimization causes damage to the individual victim and the witnesses. I have been both.
This toxicity can be cooled but doing so begins with awareness that bullying exists and what roles each of us play in permitting it to flourish. Bullying does not improve outcomes or chances of winning, nor make an individual stronger for the suffering or torment of others.
Bullying is about power and control through the application of six well-worn strategies. But understand very clearly, no bully can be successful without the acquiescing silence of others. The justification always displaces the fault onto the targets of the bullying.
Six components that permit a bully culture to thrive:
Bullies cultivate power in relationships with those they can successfully manipulate.
Any person with low status is at risk. A person who is new is at risk. People who are shy, insecure, or disenfranchised are at high risk.
Once upon a time I spoke up: I spoke directly with my coach (in private) about how I felt she was treating me and a few others. I felt her behavior was disrespectful, cruel, and harmful both to the individuals and the team. In response, she threatened to take me to the league’s Mediation Committee turning the tables and making me the problem, ignoring the concern I expressed.
After that incident, this same coach told me I would no longer be jamming, despite my years of jamming experience. She knew it was my goal to try out as a jammer on Travel Team so she had the leverage. The demotion hobbled my efforts by taking away my only opportunity to practice jamming before tryouts. She also stopped me from blocking during scrimmages that resulted in me having insufficient practice, so I would not be rostered. My thoughts were only of how I could please her in order to skate again to be seen as a worthy team member. I could not speak up about her behavior or else I would not reach my goals, so I was groomed to keep quiet.
Bullies are experts at convincing their victims that they are the ones at fault.
Once upon a time it was my fault I couldn’t be another person: I was told that because my body was “different” and my style of jamming was not their style of play. I was assigned to shadow and skate like a different skater, who was taller, bigger than me, and one with a background in football (while I have a background in dance).
My natural body was unaccepted: I was told I was too small to be a good jammer. I was told my nutrition and workout regimes were sub-par. I looked “gross”, and that I should think about eating lots of potatoes in order to gain weight. The insults were personal. I believed what I was told. No matter my efforts the goalposts were always moving and it was always my fault.
Ironically this is the ugliest intersection of the bullying situation because bullies do show love.
They show love of team. They show love of the skills. They show love of the game. These passions are what fuel each skater’s passion for the league. I loved the league and sacrificed — willingly — for the cause.
Once Upon A Time I Believed: Loyalty to the league trumped any feelings of compassion towards others and myself. What is good for the league was good for me. My loyalty was expected — even when it meant taking actions against my own best interest. Loyalty and silence pushed against me, wore me down, sent me beyond reasonable boundaries. Because ultimately, my identity was my league.
Fear and threats come from both the bully and your allies.
Allies don’t want you to get hurt by questioning the status quo or to directly confront the bully. Fear of retaliation and self-preservation creates avoidance and permits the dysfunctional culture to thrive.
My moral code cracked: A team captain crashed a private dinner party and told me that I should not support a woman who was being bullied because it would be detrimental my goals. “Nice ambition to join Travel Team; it would be a shame if something happened to it.”
I was afraid so I caved: I failed to help another woman who was suffering from bullying speak up about it in front of the league’s Mediation Committee. She wanted my support and with this support, she hoped she would be taken seriously by the Mediation Committee.
I was told my status on the league would be in jeopardy if I supported her. So, I remained silent. She ultimately quit the league.
Fear and intimidation works so effectively because we underestimate our own need for social connection and acceptance.
This need for human connection is seen as a flaw to be exploited as a tool within a bully culture for the vilification of the victim by weaponizing the very reason the community exists in the first place.
My loyalty was ridiculed. While on injury leave, I sent a note containing my best wishes for my home team. I included what I thought were heartfelt, personal messages. In return, I was sent a video showing several of the team members reading these aloud and laughing about them.
My joy was denied:, I was routinely told not to smile while skating. My smile was faulted for making the team lose the game. -Absolutely ridiculous!
The organization often knows that the bullying has been happening for years. Too often there have been no repercussions.
Members have silently endured and watched bullies eliminate “the complainers” with focused effort. The message is clear that any individual’s unwanted effort to change these behaviors will likely place a target on their own back. The silence of the majority normalizes the negative behaviors and condones the actions of the bullies and can become the accepted structure and culture.
My ideas were attacked: I was invited to present a new strategy to the league. It was suggested that I present my ideas to my home team before the travel team. During my presentation, two veteran skaters heckled me continuously which disrupted practice so intensely that it was called off early. This incredibly embarrassing episode happened in front of the whole team and not a single person spoke up about it. The disruptive people had the tacit approval and authority to belittle me and humiliate me in front of the entire team. Those same women went on to take my strategy, spin it as if they came up with it, and then implemented it during practice without giving me credit.
I realized I was on my own; I had to understand my place. I didn’t know who I could trust.
It is in the bully’s best interest for you to be quiet.
You have to keep your mouth shut about the bullying — whether the target is you or someone else. Speaking up will achieve nothing except getting yourself in trouble. If you want to be part of the group, you must keep the secrets.
I couldn’t live with the secrets anymore and was compelled to speak up. So, I had to go.
I was asked not to write this: I was told that it would only diminish the league’s image. However, the facts are that I and others tried to make a positive impact from the inside and it simply didn’t work. Now it’s time I tell my story, and I hope that by speaking my truth it sheds a light that may help others. I have a voice and I don’t have to be a silent bystander.
The aftermath of surviving social abuse and bullying is all too tangible for so many of us who were disregarded and brushed under the rug or even utilized to perpetuate control by those wielding power.
I came to the Bay Area Derby Girls enthusiastic and optimistic, going above and beyond to volunteer and skate. What I witnessed and experienced was an atmosphere of a blatant and tacit acceptance of abusive social dynamics. This toxic mix will naturally produce a powder keg of sorts when unchecked by a league.
The voices rising up now are those of teammates, officials, all volunteers — all the wheels and cogs of a functioning league. How did we get here? I can only speak for myself, and now I have come to learn that I am no longer alone.
Once upon a time my voice was silenced: but now it is free.