The Bully Battles

Bullying remains a pervasive issue in Canada. Whether or not the recent video involving the Vaughan Soccer Club is an act of “bullying,” one thing is for certain — compassion and kindness need to be reinforced at the adolescent stage.

There’s a classic and frequently used English idiom that states, “A picture is worth a thousand words.” But what about a video?

On April 15, at a two-storey hotel outside of Pordenone, Italy, four members of Vaughan Soccer Club’s under-15 team emphatically enter a fellow teammate’s suite. Upon entrance to the room, three of the boys charge their teammate and tackle him to the bed. As this begins, the boy working the camera shuts the door and darts to the other side of the room to get another angle of the situation. Phrases such as “watch out” and “stop” are uttered intermittently. The three boys pile on top of their teammate, with one of them throwing fists at the pinned individual. As two of the boys get off the pile, the victim gains momentum and shrugs off the main aggressor. The victim tries to go after the main aggressor, but is almost immediately thwarted and pinned back down. “Don’t touch me, all right? Don’t try it,” the main aggressor says in an imposing tone, as he remains on the victim’s back, pressing his face against the bed. After the aggressor gets up, the victim is left on the bed groaning in pain while holding his stomach.

It’s unclear what prompted this incident. It’s also ambiguous as to whether or not this is an act of “bullying,” or simply aggression. The American Psychological Association defines bullying as a “form of aggressive behaviour in which someone intentionally and repeatedly causes another person injury or discomfort.” Whether this incident was a “one-off” or a recurring ordeal among the main parties involved is uncertain. What is apparent is the ubiquity of violence and hostility among the boys in the video, who were in Italy for 10 days as part of a soccer tournament.

“We were shocked,” the president of the Vaughan Soccer Club, Tony Bartolomeo, tells City Life. “It was something that we didn’t expect.” Bartolomeo says that he was made aware of the video a week after the incident occurred, via email. “There was of course a concern right off the bat to ensure the safety of the kids,” he says. “That’s what our club is always about — the safety of the kids first.” The executive vice-president of Vaughan Soccer Club, Pat Di Rauso, told CityNews back in April that in the club’s 35-year history they “never experienced anything like this.”

Bartolomeo says that upon finding out about the video on Saturday, April 22, the club started contacting team officials and other executives to organize. The following morning, the club met with the parents of players on the team to discuss the matter. Similarly, on the Monday night, the club held a meeting with the players and parents to talk about what happened on the trip and “to do some fact-finding,” as Bartolomeo describes. “Everyone was very forthcoming. Nobody was trying to hide anything,” he says. The club also hired a sports psychologist to assist the team through the process.

Bullying is about power. They [bullies] know that they have more power than another person and they purposely use that power to hurt them. To me, that’s the most reprehensible and vile [thing] — Anthony McLean

As a result of what transpired, the club suspended the under-15 team from April 23 to May 3. The main players involved in the hotel incident were not only suspended, but also disciplined by an independent disciplinary committee. Bartolomeo would not elaborate on the ruling by the disciplinary committee, saying it’s “confidential” and “not fair to the players.” The under-15 team is currently playing, but the status of those involved in the incident is unclear.

The hotel incident prompted Vaughan Soccer Club to hold a mandatory anti-bullying and social media awareness workshop on May 18 — from the U8 to U18 levels — to discuss the concept of social media and cyberbullying, the risks and consequences of such practices and how to deal with them. “Our biggest takeaway from this is education, education, education. It’s not [a] cliché,” Bartolomeo says. He notes that Vaughan Soccer Club will be implementing social media awareness and anti-bullying workshops of its own. “We’re concerned about the mental health of all our players. This really helped it.”

Bullying has been an issue nationwide. According to a past Canadian Council on Learning report, among 35 countries, Canada had the ninth-highest rate of bullying in the 13-year-old demographic. Moreover, according to a 2014 General Social Survey on Canadians’ Safety, approximately one in five Internet users aged 15 to 29 reported being “cyberbullied” or “cyberstalked.”

Anthony McLean, founder and director of iEngage, has delivered fun and interactive presentations to over 400 schools in the GTA, mainly on diversity, wellness and bullying. Since 2005, he has studied all forms of bullying — physical, verbal, social and cyber. “Bullying is about power,” he says. “They [bullies] know that they have more power than another person and they purposely use that power to hurt them. To me, that’s the most reprehensible and vile [thing].”

All forms of bullying can have a detrimental effect on children and adolescents. For Richmond Hill native Daniel Sebben, being the victim of bullying from Grades 8 to 10 took a toll on him. “I have scars all over my arms because of it. I was cutting myself,” the 26-year-old says now, looking back. During that time, Sebben says he resorted to self-medicating with a variety of drugs to cope with the verbal, psychological and emotional abuse he was receiving on a regular basis from a group of hockey players at school. “It was the only way to cope. It was the only time I was happy with myself.” Sebben and his family sought assistance externally.

It wasn’t until Grade 10 that Sebben’s family took his case to the Ontario Human Rights Commission, stating that the York Region District School Board “failed to protect Daniel,” according to a 2009 article. In the end, the bullying halted after a mediation was conducted through Sebben’s high school between him and his main aggressor, which consisted of a written agreement between both parties.

“It took almost seven years for me to hear that goofy laugh that he used to laugh. It took me seven years to get my son back,” Karen Sebben, Daniel’s mother, says now. “He’s now 26 and he’s flourishing.” Karen is also the president of the York Region Anti-Bullying Coalition, an anti-bullying education and advocacy organization prompted by her son.

A registered psychotherapist at FLEX Psychology, Amy Friedman, outlines some of the other psychological ramifications of bullying. “Typically [it’s] overall low self-esteem, distorted self-image and self -worth. Just the thought of being called a name or going to that area where they have been bullied before can increase their anxiety; increased feelings of sadness, loneliness, which can lead to depression,” she says.

Despite the tumultuous three years he endured, Daniel Sebben says that his experience as a victim of bullying has shaped him as a person. “I’ve become the person I am now because of all of it,” he says. “I’m happy with myself. I love my job. I have a great life, a roof over my head, a car, a girlfriend. There’s nothing I could be happier about. It’s in my past — it can stay in my past.”

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Daniel Calabretta

Daniel Calabretta