In Part 1 of "Getting Up And Saying No", I started a conversation about bullying in social media by looking at the positive impact of Jeremy Abbott's experience at the 2014 Winter Olympic Games in Sochi, Russia and his brave decision to stand up to his critics. In Part 2, we'll look more closely at some of the deeper, underlying issues that undoubtedly brought him to this decision and the far reaching impact of bullying and social media. As they say, 'haters gonna hate'. It's unrealistic to think that reminding people to behave will make them behave. Our behaviors and choices are our own. As Allison Scott said to me in one of our many conversations, "if we can make just one person think about the impact of their words then we're doing something positive". Let's address the problem head on, and use examples because examples are fun!:
Sensationalistic writing is nothing new in the world we live in. We can't go buy a package of gum without having to bypass a stand of National Enquirers talking about people's gay secret lovers, infidelity shockers or purported rehab stints. Skating is no different. The typical media response by most journalists is to create a headline that suits their purpose, and if that purpose is to make someone look bad to create a headline, so be it.
Christine Brennan, the controversial writer of the 90's book "Inside Edge" that managed to upset more people in the skating community than it gained her allies, has been one of many skater's harshest critics over the years. Her seeming lack of in-depth knowledge on the topic of skating is often made up by her venomous pen. In her February 7 article for "USA Today", she lambasted Jeremy Abbott (one of her favourite targets) by saying "Abbott's showing was a total embarrassment. There's not much worse you can say about an athlete after you say he's completely unreliable. Sadly, that's Abbott. Never one to be able to master his nerves, he picked the worst possible time to perform horribly." Rather than eat her own words or even give due credit to his inspirational comeback in the free skate, she chose to continue to bully the U.S. Champion on Twitter by calling him 'pathetic' and 'classless' after he finally stood up for himself and his comeback performance in Sochi by telling his constant critics exactly what he thought of them. Neither Christine Brennan nor her employers responded to my repeated requests for a comment.
Brennan wasn't alone in her harsh criticism of Abbott. In a typical communication from The Skating Lesson (yes, the same Skating Lesson that cattily went after U.S. Figure Skating after being denied a press pass to the U.S. International Figure Skating Classic in the fall and subsequently abruptly stopped presenting interviews with top ranked U.S. competitors), the site's Twitter account passive aggressively poked fun at Abbott by saying "At some point he's not the guy who always gets up. He's just the guy who keeps falling." - text from friend." Another, from February 14 states "Kevin Reynolds has two footed more jumps in this program than Ashley Wagner has this season." On Max Aaron: "Text from a friend: Think, he paid thousands of dollars for this 'choreography'". These "texts from a friend" almost appear as some of the snarkier comments posted, almost giving an impression of a lack of ownership of the hurtful words. Here, let me try: "Skater A is a complete failure. - text from a friend".
Other communications from "TSL" have insinuated that Alex Shibutani faked an injury and that the Shibutani's lied about their reason for withdrawing from a Grand Prix event, in addition to implying that Tessa Virtue faked leg cramps. Ironically, in one video rant Lease called Olympic Gold Medallist Meryl Davis "an idiot" and "totally unlikeable". Davis, in turn, has been involved in anti-bullying campaigns. I addressed the topic of bullying and the tweet about Jeremy specifically with Dave Lease. He defended his style of commenting on figure skating by saying, "I personally do not feel that commentators who are always positive do any service to the skaters or the public. They are not treating the skaters as being athletes on the same level of professional athletes from other sports. It is simply not the case. The skaters at the Olympic Games are on the level of anyone in the NBA, though the public does tend to act like the they are fragile because they don't wear the same uniforms." Regarding bullying skaters, Lease stated "I think bullying would be tagging someone and attacking their character" and "that was a text from a friend. And it was not even mentioned who the skater was." I explained to him that in the context of the conversation it was clear the tweet I was calling him on was about Abbott, after which Lease admitted it WAS Abbott he was referring to in this particular tweet. His defense was that "on social media, there is a big difference when people make comments .vs. tag someone." I don't know. If I type the word Madonna into Twitter, I can read everything people are saying about her. Not so shockingly, Madonna can too.
There is a succinct difference between constructive and destructive criticism, and being a fan of humor, one of the examples I wanted to use to illustrate this point was Jimmy Kimmel's recurring "Celebrities Read Mean Tweets" segment where he asked his celebrity guests to read some of the things written on Twitter about them. You'll notice that many didn't 'tag' the celebrities directly, but here they are reading them nonetheless. They have a thicker skin than most, which should not be a requirement of being in the limelight.
After being named to the U.S. Olympic team ahead of Mirai Nagasu, the bronze medallist at the 2014 U.S. Figure Skating Championships, two time U.S. Champion Ashley Wagner decided to take a break from social media after bullies on Facebook and Twitter decided to have a field day. Among the tweets? "I hope you fall hard on your face in the ice at the olympics you underserving *%3@1!", "Everyone should boycott @USFigureSkating and all the sponsors that @AshWagner2010 received. Don't buy anything from Satan Devil worshippers!”, "Got my voodoo doll made. Looks just like @AshWagner2010 I'm hoping for seven falls in her long program in Sochi #MiraiEarnedIt" and from Bobby Trentino (@RedRaiderTT): "@chasterlei @AshWagner2010 That Bleep won't give it up. I want to see her fall splat splat splat on the ice like she did during nationals!" Wagner responded by saying "“It's tough to filter out the good things that you hear and the awful things that people will write. So I'm going cold turkey." Some people believe the solution is for these skaters not to go on social media at all. I disagree. They have every much a right to use sites like Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Vine and YouTube as much as anyone else... and not be bullied. Sorry! It's true. That's like saying to me that I shouldn't go to a 'straight bar', for instance, if I don't want to be harrassed for being gay. Like hell. I go where I want and do what I want and expect respect wherever I go and whatever I go. You don't have to like me, you don't have to agree with me, but you absolutely have to treat me with respect. That's how I feel on that topic. In the end, Ashley had the last laugh, turning in three fabulous performances at the 2014 Winter Olympic Games in Sochi, Russia.
Do you know what the funny thing is though? It's not just these 'reporters' going after the skaters. Yoshiro Mori, the seventy six year old head of Tokyo's 2020 Olympic Organizing Committee said of Mao Asada's short program at the Sochi Olympics: “She always falls at the most crucial moment. We knew we were going to lose the team competition, so there was no need to have Ms. Asada perform and embarrass herself." Mori's cruel comments echo some of these skating "fans", often anonymous folks who use a 'handle' or pseudonym to post cruel and simply untrue things on skating message boards like Figure Skating Universe and Golden Skate or on Twitter and Facebook. They've been around since the dawn of technology, taking jabs at Michelle Kwan or attacking skaters that they weren't fans of for something to do, hiding behind the safety net of their anonymity. This kind of abuse on social media is nothing new. A seventeen year old was arrested on suspicion of malicious communication after British diver Tom Daley received tweets indicating he'd let down his deceased father by failing to win a medal at the 2012 Summer Games in London, England. Guess what? Just because no one knows who you are, that doesn't make your behaviour any less disgusting.
I spoke to CBC figure skating commentator P.J. Kwong (while in Sochi working the Games as an announcer) about this kind of behavior. "My take on things is that if you wouldn't say something directly to a person, you have no place saying it in a public forum where the intention is to bully or humiliate the other person," P.J. explained "There is no need to be personal. This is what I refer to as Anti-Social media. I am not a fan." Skate Canada certainly doesn't stand for bullying. It has taken a firm stance. The governing body of skating in Canada's by-laws condemn it as shared in this statement provided to me by Emma Bowie, Skate Canada's Communications Director: "Skate Canada strongly condemns bullying, will not tolerate bullying by any of its members, and is committed to raising awareness of this issue and preventing and eliminating bullying behaviour within Skate Canada. Skate Canada recognizes that bullying can have a serious adverse impact on personal dignity, self-esteem, confidence, personal safety, performance, enjoyment of skating and of life itself. All Skate Canada members have the right to participate in a safe, supportive and caring environment free from harassment and they have the responsibility to contribute to the protection and maintenance of this environment." In a document that circulated in 2013, Skate Canada also stated that they will not tolerate bullying "through electronic means including e-mail, texting and social media."
The issue of bullying is nothing new when it comes to the skating community in Canada. In 2011, Jamie Hubley, a fifteen year old gay Ottawa figure skater who was constantly bullied all the way from elementary school to high school took his own life. His father, an Ottawa city councillor, said in a CBC interview that "[Jamie] was the kind of boy that loved everybody. He couldn't understand why everyone would be so cruel to him about something as simple as skating." Hubley was held down by a mob of children while they took turns spitting in his mouth, called every name in the book and force-fed him small batteries. RCMP Constable Tad Milmine has started a program called 'Bullying Ends Here' in Hubley's memory and shares Jamie's story in schools in hopes that he can confront the issue of bullying with young people. Olympic Silver Medallist Liz Manley (who was cruelly ostracised by the media herself) has been one of the biggest champions of the issue and her "Elizabeth Manley And Friends" show has fundraised for anti-bullying initatives in Ottawa. The year after Hubley's suicide, a march was held in Sainte-Angele-de-Monnoir, 50 km east of Montreal, protesting years of homophobic bullying experienced by an eight year old elementary student and figure skater named Jeremy. He was called names and thrown to the ground and walked on. Jeremy's elementary school tried to address the issue by asking children to send letters of apology to the student and one of the parents of the children bullying him responding by saying "It's not my fault if that bloody cow makes her son play a fag's sport!"
It certainly makes you think, doesn't it? Do you know who Doug is talking about? I think you do. The skater Doug is talking about is five time U.S. Champion, two time World Medallist and 1972 Olympic Bronze Medallist Janet Lynn.
THE MORAL OF THE STORY
Former British Prime Minister Winston Churchill inspired a nation to keep going through World War II. One of his most famous quotes is "if you're going through hell, keep going". Margaret Atwood, in The Handmaid's Tale, wrote "Nolite te bastardes carborundorum" - "Don't let the bastards grind you down". Skating, as in everything, isn't always going to be easy. Life has a way of throwing you the unexpected but in Jeremy's case, although he didn't win Olympic gold, he found the courage to get up, the courage to go back out and face it all in his free skate and do what he was capable of and the courage to stand up to bullies. The moral of the story that culminates in all three of these things is getting back up and saying "no". No, I won't just accept that. Bravo Jeremy for your courage, grit, determination and voice. In my eyes, you're an Olympic Gold Medallist.
My good friend Raymond Taavel was brutally murdered in 2012 by a mentally ill man out on a day pass from a mental health facility. Why? Because somewhere in that mentally ill man's head, he HATED gay people. Raymond, like Jeremy, was the kind of person to get up when the going got tough. Raymond and I worked closely for two years with Halifax Pride and one thing that I learned from our friendship was that speaking up when something is wrong is what you do, being impassioned is the only way to be. As heartened as I am with Jeremy's accomplishments and courage in Sochi, I am standing up and saying "no" to people on social media and IN the media that think bullying skaters is okay. Hiding behind a computer or an excuse is not okay. Hate is never okay. That's not what we're here on Earth to do, and if you think otherwise, you get another hug.
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