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Derrick Z. Jackson

The kings of trash talk

By Derrick Z. Jackson
February 2, 2010

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THE RECENT suicide of 15-year-old Phoebe Prince, after a taunting barrage at South Hadley High School, has set off a classic round of revelation that we do not do enough in schools or in lawmaking to stop bullying. Referring to about a dozen bills being debated in the Legislature, Governor Deval Patrick has said, “We need this bullying legislation and we need it now.’’

But legislation needs to coincide with a national crusade. A study last year conducted for the World Health Organization involved researchers from the United States, Canada, Ireland, Israel, and Denmark, and found that occasional bullying has decreased far more in much of Europe than in the United States. The prevalence of US boys reporting occasional bullying dropped only 15.5 percent between 1998 and 2006. But Austria, Belgium, the Czech Republic, Denmark, Finland, Germany, Hungary, Israel and Norway slashed boy bullying by between 30 percent and 58 percent. Several of those countries started with bullying rates much higher than the United States.

There were similar findings for girls. The rate of occasional bullying among girls dropped only 4 percent in the United States, remaining virtually frozen at 31 percent of girls in 2006. Meanwhile, girl bullying dropped between 23.5 percent and 63 percent in Switzerland, Russia, Norway, Israel, Hungary, Germany, Finland, Denmark, the Czech Republic, Belgium and Austria.

The study said, “These variations may be due to national or more local prevention efforts. There are many potential lessons for current interventional efforts to be learned from countries such as Denmark, the Czech Republic and Belgium that reported significant decreases in bullying and victimization. Similarly, there is much to be learned from countries such as Sweden, where the prevalence was low at the baseline (25 percent for boys and 11 percent for girls) and remained so over the full study period.’’

We’ve learned little in the United States, even though the study cited our national anti-bullying efforts to date. I suspect that the reasons the US bullying rate has not moved are complex. But a good place to start is coming up this Sunday as a huge percentage of Americans will sit down in living rooms and bars and watch the New Orleans Saints and the Indianapolis Colts play in the Super Bowl.

Most bullying begins with nasty words, and what will we certainly see on Sunday? We’ll see player after player jawing at each other and talking trash. No media outlet seems above glorifying in some way the top trash talkers in sports, whether it is reminiscing about Muhammad Ali or observing the most flamboyant athletes of the moment.

For instance, a December feature story about New York Jets linebacker Bart Scott began, “Bart Scott talks trash freely and incessantly, all day, on any topic, on matters from petty to profound. He has singled out Bill Cowher’s chin, LenDale White’s gut, T.J. Houshmandzadeh’s ponytail and Reggie Bush’s manhood. A Jets linebacker, Scott views trash talking as an art, or science . . . He runs his mouth 365 days a year.’’

The story said that Scott honed his “craft’’ as a child, building on “yo momma’’ jokes to the point where he “bullied bullies.’’

Defenders of the “craft’’ say it’s all in fun, just a part of “getting into a competitor’s head.’’ But many of the jokes, as Scott says, are about “manhood,’’ often veering into homophobic or sexist cracks. With so many stories of teen taunting with traumatic endings, we adults have made it almost impossible for adolescents to know when they cross the line.

We glorify loud athletes, handsomely pay barking talk show hosts and accepted Presidents Bush and Clinton taunting military, political, and media enemies. The NFL is hardly the only sport that assumes trash talking is a normal part of the game. But it is the most watched. It certainly will not happen this Sunday, but a nice way to begin a meaningful national campaign against bullying is to put an end to trash talk.

Derrick Z. Jackson can be reached at jackson@globe.com.

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