Is bullying an issue for female athletes?

Experts say bullying among female athletes is more prevalent in junior high and high school than at the collegiate and pro levels. Robert Adrian Hillman/Getty Images

When Milena Clarke heard about the Miami Dolphins' bullying controversy, she instantly felt that familiar sick sensation.

"It brought back a lot of the pain and reminded me of my situation," said the 14-year-old high school freshman basketball player from Ashland, Ky. "It made me feel kind of better that I was not the only one, but also worse that it would happen to anybody else."

As the Richie Incognito-Jonathan Martin saga continues to play out, the issue of bullying -- and specifically bullying in sports -- is attracting more attention to a societal problem that is as common as it is often misunderstood, with female athletes of all ages no exception.

"I don't think people realize how bad it can be [in girls' sports]," Clarke said. "People think girls are mean at [junior high] age, but I don't think they know about the things they actually do."

For Clarke, an Asian American adopted at 18 months from Kazakhstan by Terry and Christi Clarke, who are both white, the problems began in seventh grade, after a summer of specialized coaching improved her game and solidified her position as the best player on her Russell Middle School team, but brought instant resentment from teammates, the family said.

"I didn't see it coming at all," Clarke said. "How it started was during one practice, some girls restrained my arms during a drill, then it started going into verbal [taunts]. I tried to go to the coaches and [in front of the team] they told me to, 'Toughen up, act as a leader.' "

Clarke said the girls teased her with ethnic slurs, which she said she had to look up because she did not even know what the words meant.

"I told Milena to tell them, 'Just shut up and play basketball,' but she got in trouble for that," said Terry Clarke, an environmental lawyer who also teaches at Marshall University. "We've had her tutored in Russian and the Russian Orthodox religion, so I told her to just say prayers when she was upset, but they equated it with cursing and told her to stop that."

When friends, including African-American girls, from her AAU team attended Milena Clarke's games or played against her middle-school team, she was called a "[n-word] lover" by her teammates, she said. She lost weight, had trouble sleeping, her grades suffered and she contemplated quitting basketball.

"I was just thinking since I wasn't given any chance [to play without being bullied] and they weren't going to do anything to help me, I'll just quit and it will all be over," she said.

The school district's attorney, Michael Schmitt, said the coaches, players and parents of the players accused contend it never happened and that Terry Clarke brought the action because he was unhappy with his daughter's playing time after she and others were promoted to the high school varsity roster at the end of the season.

"I'm sure bullying and obnoxious conduct occurs among girls, but in this instance, we were not able to substantiate anything," Schmitt said.

This fall, Milena Clarke, now 5-foot-10 and having played in an AAU national tournament as well as for a Nike-sponsored Kentucky Premier AAU team, makes the 45-mile round trip to East Carter High School in her new district, and this winter season will play for its varsity team, which she said has been nothing but welcoming.

On behalf of Milena, the Asian American Legal Defense and Education Fund filed two complaints against the Russell Independent School District -- one with the Civil Rights Division of the U.S. Department of Justice and another with the Office for Civil Rights of the U.S. Department of Education -- asking for compensation for duress experienced, primarily for counseling services, the additional travel and the differences in academic programming at her new school. The investigation is in the early stages.

But Clarke already has received help from an unexpected source, when she got a call in September from Houston Rockets guard Jeremy Lin, also an Asian American, who heard of her story. espnW reached out to Lin for comment, but via a Rockets spokesperson, he said that while he is happy Clarke is sharing her story, "it's not something he wants to speak to the media about."

"He asked how my new school was going, how I liked it," Milena said. "And he told me, 'Don't go down to that level because it makes you just like them.' He really kind of helped me get it all out."

For other girls and women, sports has been a matter of carefully avoiding bullying.

DePaul women's basketball coach Doug Bruno took special notice while on a recruiting trip several years ago, when he saw a sign in a player's house that read "Bully-Free Zone."

"People can be so cruel on the outside," explained the recruit, Kelsey Reynolds, now a senior guard for DePaul, "that I thought in our house, our family needs to have each other's backs."

Bruno, who has coached both men and women in a 40-year career, including as an assistant with the 2012 U.S. Olympic women's basketball team, addresses bullying on the first day of his all-girls' basketball camps, but said he has never had a case that he knows about in his 28 years at DePaul.

That does not mean, however, he is not an astute observer of how both genders initiate new members to their teams.

"If there is a new person in a group dynamic, that person is going to get assessed in some way, shape or form," Bruno said. "Men generally initiate physically, so basically when a freshman steps on the floor of a collegiate institution, the older guys will test him, and I'm not talking about locker room stuff, but on the court with the very first open gyms. The new freshman is going to go to the basket and probably get put in the third row by an older player.

"In women's basketball, the initiation is sometimes physical but in general it's more psychological. But if you're recruiting quality people, it is done in a way that is above being harmful."

Sheryl Swoopes, coach of the Loyola University Chicago women's basketball team, the WNBA's first signee and a three-time Olympic gold medalist, agreed with Bruno that problems sometimes can begin relatively innocently.

"I tell my team, 'If you have an issue with a player, regardless of what it is, it is always better to talk to that player directly and talk the problem out, because what she thinks about you may be the complete opposite of what you thought,' " Swoopes said.

Bruno said texting, while he appreciates it for certain types of communication, can pose a problem when it takes the place of face-to-face interaction.

"This realization hit me over the head once," he said, "when I saw two players on our bus texting each other from across the aisle."

It is part of that gray area, which players might not define as bullying but where even miscommunication or what they may believe is harmless gossip, can create exclusion and undermine team unity.

"Guys tend to get more physical and talk more smack," Swoopes said. "But we tend to be very sensitive and very emotional, regardless of what it is. We're too worried about what others think and it takes us away from what we should be doing, which is really working hard and focusing on, 'How do I get better and make my team better?' "

Bruno said that trait is not always confined to girls and women.

"Guys are guilty of that, too," he said. "If you have something to say about a teammate that's not positive, have the freaking guts to say it to their face instead of behind their back."

Rosalind Wiseman, author of the 2002 "Queen Bees and Wannabes," upon which Tina Fey's movie "Mean Girls" was partially based, and the recently released "Masterminds and Wingmen," which is the boys' self-help version, said it's important to appreciate that females are not inherently predisposed to mistreating each other.

"Girls bonding together and playing well can look like a clique, but there's everything right about bonding together over a struggle," Wiseman said. "You don't want to throw the baby out with the bathwater. It's how they conduct themselves as players on and off the field, but you never want to take away that feeling of camaraderie."

Wiseman said some conflict is inevitable.

"It's the way in which we teach our girls to manage the conflict, to treat each other with dignity," she said. "It's about, when we don't like a girl on the team for something social, we handle our business straight up and don't get other players against her. Those are difficult situations to deal with and very few adults can handle that."

Bruno said each season he gathers his players around him at midcourt to emphasize the inner circle of a team and that only they are qualified to understand what goes on inside that circle.

"There are always going to be differences within a team and we want to embrace individual differences," he said. "We embrace that there are going to be sub-groups within a team. But what separates a sub-group from a clique is when one group is working against another group. That's how we define it."

Reynolds said while Bruno has "zero tolerance" for anything resembling bullying, it is still up to veteran players to police the team.

"I think in general, people get afraid to say, 'What you're doing isn't nice and could be considered bullying,'" she said. "Even when a joke goes too far, you can definitely step up and say, 'Hey, knock it off, it isn't funny, it's a little too much.'"

Do girls grow out of bullying in sports? Reynolds and others said that's what they have experienced.

"In high school, there are always going to be some girls jealous of what other people have and I can see them taking it out on them or not liking them," Reynolds said. "But once you get to college and the Division I level, a lot of it goes away. You're part of a team and something bigger, so when someone is successful, it's good for the team as a whole and everyone is in it together."

Brooke Wyckoff, an assistant coach for the Florida State women's basketball team who played eight seasons for three teams in the WNBA from 2000 to 2009, said while there is occasional "mean-girl" behavior on girls' and women's teams, there was also an interesting phenomenon that took place on every pro team for which she played.

"With any group of women, you're going to have some degree of cattiness or competitiveness or territorial attitudes," she said. "But in the WNBA, especially now that it has lasted this long, I think a good tradition has been established. And talking to players [from FSU] who have gone on to play the last few years, there still seems to be that tradition of taking care of each other, having that really cool, experienced vet who makes it kind of a family atmosphere."

Nikki McCray, who played for eight seasons after starring at Tennessee and is now an assistant coach at South Carolina, agreed that the nature of a four-month schedule, less disparity in salaries and often housing within close proximity in the WNBA forces players to look at their situations as temporary, with their support systems and social networks naturally confined to the team.

"When you get to the pros, we have such a limited time, you can't really hang onto the negative stuff," McCray said. "When you have four games in one week, you have to just let things go. Plus, when I played, the league was new and everyone was so excited to be a part of it, you don't want to cause trouble because you'll be labeled a bad teammate and be out of a job."

"There's something cool about being a woman in professional sports," Wyckoff said. "It sort of takes a turn from any [mean-girl] behavior that may have existed in college. It's less catty, more of a family. There are still emotional ups and downs, but I definitely saw the camaraderie as huge."

Swoopes said she experienced the same thing on Olympic teams.

"I can remember my first Olympics [in 1996]. I didn't know what was going on and we had three mother hens on that team [in Dawn Staley, Lisa Leslie and Teresa Edwards] who took all of us in and showed us the ropes," Swoopes said. "When you had a bad day, you always had someone to talk to other than the coach, and for whatever reasons, you don't find that so much in men's locker rooms."

That may be somewhat encouraging to girls like Milena Clarke, but what about until then?

Brooke de Lench, a nationally recognized youth parenting expert, said travel-level youth sports encourages bullying behavior, and it often begins at home.

"Over the past five years, we've seen an uptick in girls' bullying and it's because that's what is learned from parents in order to have a spot on the next rung of the ladder," she said. "It's almost like they have to push the competition out."

De Lench said that typically, parent-coaches will form a team when their kids are in kindergarten, then try to keep the same group together through middle school, in part because the parents have formed their own social groups.

"Then what happens is, some girls end up on a team where they're not liked because they displaced a friend of the others," she said. "That's when they're bullied, told they don't deserve to be on the team and are pressured and encouraged from parents who say, I want to continue carpooling and watching from the sideline with these parents. I get letters about this all the time."

Joel Haber, a psychologist who specializes in bullying, said girls as young as 2 and 3 have demonstrated bullying behaviors, both verbally and exclusionary, and that physical forms of bullying "is not just a male thing. We're seeing much more of it among girls.

"But as they get into sports, a lot is determined by coaches and the teams they are on, and by the culture the coach sets," he said.

In Clarke's case, her father said, coaches observed bullying behavior and contributed to it, including removing Milena from the high school roster on which she was placed as a middle-schooler, saying she was not putting forth the necessary effort.

"Kids will test out [bullying] behavior, whether in school, in camp or on the sports field and it matters that adults tell them it's unacceptable," Haber said. "If a coach is really strong on this stuff and says, 'Look, if you continue this, you're not going to be on this team,' they can change behavior. Whether they can change the person is another story. But they can root it out, stop it and say, 'If you do this, you cannot be a part of us.' "

For Clarke, that is exactly what her new high school coach, Hager Easterling, did on the first day of practice. First, he introduced Clarke to her teammates, then pointed out she was of a different race than they were and added, "If anyone has a problem with that … go to the lockers and we'll have your mommies and daddies pick you up."

The best part, Clarke said, was her new teammates' reaction.

"They were like, 'Why would it matter?' " she said. "It was just me."