After Bullying Hits Close to Home, NWC Men’s Soccer Team Rallies Around Cause
Northwest College men’s head soccer coach Stan Rodrigues knew something was up when he ran into one of his players on campus.
The usually fun-loving and boisterous athlete was uncharacteristically quiet and sullen; Rodrigues knew something heavy weighed on his mind.
“He’s usually this happy-go-lucky kid, but I just caught a weird vibe from him,” the coach recalled. “I asked him ‘Hey, what’s going on?’ And he just heaved this big sigh.”
The player had discovered his younger sibling, who has a learning disability, had become the target of bullies at school. Like any protective older brother is inclined to do, the player’s first instinct was to deal with the problem directly — and not in a way that involved civil discourse.
“I told him, ‘Sorry, man, that’s not gonna happen. Let’s talk about it a bit, see what we can come up with,’” Rodrigues explained. “He was in my office for two-and-a-half hours, and over the course of his story, I was just amazed at how the adults involved on the side of the school were not managing the situation to the student’s needs. And when I found out a little bit more about it, I was even more saddened, because God forbid that was my son or daughter.”
‘STORIES CONNECT US’
With the advent of the internet and social media, the last 20 years have seen a powerful sub-section of bullying that is virtually impossible to escape from. According to statisticbrain.com, 52 percent of students nationally have admitted to being cyberbullied, be it on social media sites like Facebook and Twitter or through texts and instant messages. Of those students who reported being cyberbullied, 52 percent do not tell their parents or an authority figure when it occurs. And unlike “traditional” bullying that takes place on schoolyards and locker rooms, cyberbullying can reach its victims regardless of location — all it takes is a cellphone or Wi-Fi signal.
“When I was a kid, at 3 p.m. I could go home and be with my family and be protected. The worst thing I would get was prank calls,” Rodrigues said. “Now kids are getting harassed on Facebook and Snapchat and getting threats on instant messenger. You can’t get away from it.”
After talking with his player, Rodrigues turned to his wife Angela, who felt inspired to raise awareness in the quickest way possible: Social media. Her concept was to involve the soccer team and launch a social media campaign, inviting athletes from other NWC sports teams to get involved. She felt it crucial to use their platform, as athletes, to bring a voice to those who feel they may have lost theirs.
“A lot of our athletes come from different backgrounds,” Rodrigues said. “We all have stories. There are some major stories on this campus — kids that have gone through stuff, where you’re just like, ‘Wow, I never would have guessed that.’ Stories connect us and we can’t forget that at the foundation of all, we are all equal human beings with our own story to tell.”
When Rodrigues approached his team with the idea of the anti-bullying campaign, their reaction was enthusiastic. Even the sophomores, gearing up for graduation and preparing to take the next step in their soccer and academic careers, immediately hopped on board.
“Despite being so different, this team is so tight,” Rodrigues explained. “They’re really bonded, and they protect each other very well. They also represent Northwest very well, on and off campus. When we told them about this, that’s when all these different stories came out. That’s when things took a turn, because our kids really felt connected. You can’t beat that.”
‘A LIFE LESSON I WILL NEVER FORGET’
Trapper midfielder Aaron Kovac, recently named a team captain for next season, has put his photography skills to use to support the cause with a series of poignant portraits of NWC athletes. The black-and-white photos contain messages of tolerance and stress the importance of speaking out.
“Being behind the camera capturing these photos is a pleasure, but working with each individual in this campaign to end bullying is a life lesson I will never forget,” Kovac said.
Fellow captain Daniel Lobera, a forward from Lander, agreed.
“At some point or another, most people have been on one end of harassment or bullying, maybe both ends,” Lobera said. “This campaign is so important to our program as well as the many people who follow us on social media. It’s a great thing for us to be known as a team who is willing to stand up [for] the little guy.”
They’re calling the campaign #NWCcares & #2TrapperUmatter in hopes the hashtags become popular on social media.
Rodrigues said one goal, among others, is to help young people learn that there is a line between a little good-natured ribbing and hurting someone’s feelings. Learning where that line is could go a long way in alleviating different forms of bullying.
“We like to joke with people, but sometimes we don’t know until it’s too late that what we may think is funny is not always funny to everybody else,” Rodrigues said.
In addition to a social media blitz, Rodrigues said the campaign has also reached out to the school district to gauge interest in having athletes come to local schools to talk to kids about bullying.
“Kids aren’t always going to listen to their parents,” he said. “But if I can bring in some of my athletes to share their stories, maybe it will ring true a little bit. If we can make people feel a little better, a little bit more connected, that’s what we’re looking to do.”
Rodrigues found himself on both sides of the bullying issue during his own childhood.
“I used to get bullied a lot, especially in middle school due to my small stature,” the coach said. “The only way I could defend myself when I got to high school, being the only Spanish kid in my school, I kind of became a bully myself.”
Rodrigues said his brand of bullying wasn’t physical; he relied on a “quick wit and a big mouth” to maintain a barrier that protected him from being picked on.
“Eventually I caught on that what I was doing was wrong, and I had softened myself by the time I was a senior,” he said. “So hearing my player’s story just brought in a bunch of emotions for me. I’ve worked in schools my whole adult life, and I’ve seen things spin wildly out of control, to the point where people either lose jobs, or things get so bad for kids that they take their own lives, because bullying occurs at such a higher level now.”
Rodrigues hopes that through this campaign, students feel empowered to speak out, whether they see bullying happening or are a victim themselves.
“They need to ask for help,” he said. “Whether they go to their parents, their peers, maybe they need to find a safe space, there’s got to be a better way to eliminate that feeling of fear and uncertainty. And in the end, the people they go to for help have got to do something ... If you’re a mandatory reporter, you’ve got to do your job. All issues, as minor as some may appear to be, are not minor to the victim. They need to be heard.”