When I confronted the bully

Oak tree, tall and strong

I made the world a better place. My world, and also the world. I did it for me: to stand up for what I believe in, to stand in the truth, to send myself a message – the message – that I deserve to be treated with respect, that I do not deserve to be in an environment that has been made toxic. And I demonstrated to myself that I have the courage to stand in vulnerability.

I did it for my community, the community of people who come together to play Lunch Bucket basketball on Tuesdays and Thursdays at lunch – to have fun and work hard and maybe get better, and get some cardio, and enjoy themselves while doing it.

I did it for the people who have stopped coming because this person creates such a toxic environment. I did it for the young kids who sometimes show up and need to see that bullying happens throughout your life and that bullies need to be stood up to. I did it for the people who complained about the situation but didn’t want to be the one who stood up.

Like them, I did not want to be the one. I thought someone else should do it. I’m the only woman who plays, and I didn’t want it to be “Oh the girl is saying something because of [too sensitive, they can’t take a joke, etc]. I thought, Why doesn’t someone say something?

But, I had painfully learned that no one else was going to step up. On another occasion, I objected to the bully about his abnormally aggressive level of contact under the hoop. Fighting for position is to be expected, but outright pushing constitutes a foul. The play was completely stopped, but he just started shoving me, two-handed shoves in the shoulders. This is a body dysmorphic guy who works out with the sole purpose of getting big, and is probably a good 75 pounds bigger than me.

No one stood up for me.

I was scared. I had to say, in my sternest, most serious voice, “That’s not okay. THAT’S. NOT. OKAY.”

How could a dozen guys just stand by and let this happen?

Probably because it’s uncomfortable. It was easier to say, “Oh well, she stood up for herself, I don’t have to.” I did really wish someone had piped in and said that it was inappropriate behaviour, constituting assault, and wasn’t going to be tolerated.

Maybe I’m glad it went that way, on some level; because, I stood up for myself then, and I stood up for myself and everyone again today, in public. I had that opportunity. It was a pretty big moment of growth for me.

The background

This whole toxic situation had been going on for a couple of years, maybe longer. I started to be annoyed with myself for not dealing with it. Last week, there were some high school kids there, being yelled at and insulted, and afterward I was so disappointed with myself. I felt a responsibility to them. More responsibility to my community and myself, but there was something that really got to me about the kids. I felt I should have said that day, for them, to set the example. A lost teaching moment.

I talked to my husband. He’s heard about the situation from me before, but I was really ready to talk it through this time. I told him I didn’t want to have to be the one. I told him what the voices in my head said to discourage me. I said it couldn’t be me. He said it could be me. We kind of rehearsed it, in a way, where I said out loud some of the things I would want to express.

Later, he said, not only can itbe you, but I think it has to be you. He said I am a person who canaddress things calmly, he said I am articulate and can express myself, how itwon’t be a testosterone-fueled stand-off.

But, more than that, it’s about where I’m at in my life right now. I stood in court and spoke my truth in the trial against my attacker in a sexual assault, and this was my next opportunity. It is so important, at this particular moment, to hear myself stand my ground, address the truth, not back down. To watch myself respond to my new sense of self-worth and communicate to myself I don’t deserve this treatment. It’s wrong and can’t be allowed to continue.

To be publicly intolerant of abuse is a strong message to my own core self that I’m not going to put up with that. It’ll teach me that I can deal with it. I’m ready to not only notice that bullying is happening but also how I now know, have a clearer understanding of how to deal with it. The importance of timing, standing your ground, being supported, creating the environment in which the message will clearly be heard by not only the bully but also the community.

I talked to some Lunch Bucket friends last week. I said, I don’t want to have to avoid playing on his team anymore! I’m done! This was the last day that I’m here and this happens. No more. It’s done.

Today I happened to see my therapist right before basketball. I expressed to her that I kind of wished I didn’t so badly need to know that I was going to be supported by the other guys. I was chiding myself for cowardliness for having to sort of check and see that I would have the moral support from the community before I went for it.

She reminded me of something I’d read: when practicing vulnerability, it’s good to start in safety. With people who you know are going to hear you out and stick with you. It’s safer to confront people we know are not going to abandon us. As you get more practice, you can up the ante. It hit me that of course any time we practice a new skill we start from the basics and work our way up. If my goal is to bench press my body weight, do I chide myself for starting with the empty bar and establish good form before adding more?

The confrontation

I was waiting to sub onto the court. After a basket when he was yelling at a teammate for who-knows-what (it’s always something), I stepped onto the court and asked for the ball. I walked to centre court and addressed the group about how we try to foster a positive environment, but sometimes toxicity entered in. He knew I was talking to him.

I knew he knew, but I checked in with myself and, yes, it was appropriate to make it a public calling-out. Not a shaming, just a calling out. So many people had already tried addressing it one-on-one with him.

I expressed how the entire vibe is different when he is there, and some people have stopped coming as a result. I said that I had developed a habit of always making sure I put on the other colour shirt (we all bring a black/dark and a white/light) when I see him show up. I don’t want to be on his team because I don’t want to be yelled at and insulted for an hour. This is something that everyone who comes with any regularity is aware of. Being on his team means at least an hour of verbal abuse.

I addressed him personally and said he was welcome to play if he could do so in a positive way. And that if he didn’t feel that he could do that, he would have to not play anymore. He tried to brush it off, but he heard me.

A couple guys got restless because they just wanted to play. Which we all do. I don’t want to wait for someone to get a drink from the water fountain; I want them to bring a water bottle and take a quick sip between games and get back on the court! We only have an hour, I want to run!

One guy appealed to me to get on with it, suggested to me that it could be done one-on-one after. I turned to him and said no. This has to be addressed as a community; it’s important to all of us. I turned back to the offender, “I will follow up with a written statement to the gym facility. If this issue persists, I will address it with your chain of command.” (He’s in the military.)

He heard me. I know he heard me. Partly because his behaviour was markedly different for the remaining hour of play, and especially because of how he confronted me after. Not on the issue of what I said, but he didn’t appreciate being called out in public. Ego stuff. (Another guy backed me up at this point, reiterating what I’d said. He pointed out that private talkings-to hadn’t helped: at best, there had been temporary improvement. It was time to escalate to a group activity. And a written report. And for further escalation if necessary.)

The rest of the game today, I was in the zone. A massive adrenaline rush will do that.

The Retaliation

Because there were enough players for gamesto be played on two separate courts (the winner on Court 2 plays the winner of Court 1 in a King-of-the-Court situation), I didn’t cross paths with the bully until later in the lunch hour. I could tell the other guys were edgy about the encounter – some of them really avoid confrontation – but I wasn’t going to back down. I had already decided this guy’s behaviour issues were no longer going to shape my experience of Lunch Bucket and, by extension, how I felt about myself.

At one point, when I was between the bully and a team mate of mine, my team mate went up for a shot, and the bully aggressively went through me for the block. I have played enough ball with this group of people to know that this individual would not have gone for the block under ordinary circumstances. He came down on me – hard – and I hit the floor. Hard. One of those ones where the sound it makes on the floor makes everyone cringe.

I went into that place you go into. Am I ok. Can I breathe. Am I injured. I normally smile and bounce back up pretty fast, but this one hurt in a way that was really not comfortable for me.

It really felt intentional. I didn’t observe it, I can’t prove anything, but sometimes you just know. So many emotions, I felt tears coming to my eyes and wondered if I was going to let them stream. That for sure would have been a first! I said to my team mate, who was desperately trying to figure out if [or how badly] I was injured, “Was that OK? I need to know if that was OK!” He hadn’t seen it, only heard it.

I got up slowly. There was no conclusive evidence of intentionality, besides my gut feeling: what had happened was not okay. I knew what was normal for our group’s style of basketball, and so is he. I know he knows better, because he so expertly goes right up to the line without quite crossing it. He didn’t have to hurt me today; it was a choice.

I’m not sure I should have let it go,but I did. The voices inside my head said I had already made enough of a scene.In retrospect, I don’t know if I did the right thing. It was all pretty overwhelming.  He hurt me. I’ve been injured tons of times in ball, it happens. Black eyes, sprained ankles, even mysterious scratches and bruises that you don’t notice till the next day. This one was different, malicious. But it was impossible to prove.

The other guys were pretty concerned about me. They don’t know what to do when the woman gets hurt at the best of times, which is a bit annoying sometimes but also kind of sweet maybe. (That’s a whole other chapter.) So I immediately hit a 3-point shot over my defender and gently reminded him that he didn’t have to go easy on me.

The numbers dwindled enough that there weren’t enough players for King-of-the-Court, so we went back to playing cutthroat (you have to sub off if your man scores). I ended up guarding the bully. “You okay?” one of my conflict-averse team mates asked. Yes, I was. The bully says to me he didn’t intentionally hurt me. I respond, “If I thought you had, things would have gone very differently.” He pretended not to hear, but he knows. He knows I mean business.

Everyone knows I mean business. They know I don’t stand for inappropriate behaviour. They know I’m going to stand up and say something. Some of them wish they had been the one to stand up, and have some guilt around it. Some of them are just glad something was said, some of them hated the whole uncomfortable situation (but not as much as they hate being sworn at and insulted!) and maybe some thought it was stupid. Some were lost and confused.

But I didn’t do it for them.

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