Magazine Feature

A New Game Plan

Coaches tackle the issues of violence and disrespect in sports.

Watching two teenage boys play basketball in a Boston park, Art Taylor of Northeastern University's Center for the Study of Sport in Society decided to record how much time the players spent shooting the ball and how much time they spent "trash-talking."

His findings: In 20 minutes, one kid took one shot. The rest of the time, the players threw insults and epithets instead of balls as they dribbled around the court.

One could dismiss this incident as the stuff of unsupervised play. But in recent years, trash talk, taunting and violence in sports have not been limited to parks and playgrounds. For example, before the tip-off at a California high school basketball game in the mid-1990s, the members of one team spat on their hands -- just to disgust their opponents. In 1996, gunfire at a Birmingham, Ala., high school football game prompted school officials to install metal detectors and require everyone (including the band) to pass through it before entering the stadium. During a 1998 Martinsville, Ind., high school basketball game, fans of the all-White home team verbally harassed visiting Black players, drawing a sanction from athletic conference officials.

Professional sports fans, meanwhile, have witnessed an array of hostile acts by prominent athletes: Heavyweight champion Mike Tyson served a prison term for raping an 18-year-old woman, then returned to boxing and bit off a piece of his opponent's ear; in a December 1997 game, Denver Bronco linebacker Bill Romanowski spat in the face of an opponent; and, during a practice last season, Golden State Warriors basketball star Latrell Sprewell allegedly choked, struck and threatened to kill his coach.

In addition, television coverage often thrusts less conspicuous abuses, such as outbursts of profanity, into the viewer's face.

"ESPN repeats the incident several times throughout the day," observes Steve Holmes, a Brattleboro, Vt., soccer coach. "Then our students come to school and think it's cool to swear."

Holmes adds that, in theory, the technical foul addresses many of these concerns during play. Officials can't call every violation, however. Ensuring a respectful atmosphere goes beyond just enforcing the rule book. And, further, merely treating each action in isolation misses the larger point.

"Behind a lot of technical fouls called on players," Holmes observes, "you'll find a coach who has a short fuse."

Disrespect in sports is not an exclusively male problem, notes Northeastern's Art Taylor, but incidents of abusive behavior by females are more atypical than commonplace. The Tonya Harding/Nancy Kerrigan incident in Olympic skating was a well-publicized example.

On the school level, Taylor says, "basketball, with its small space, high degree of physical contact and loosely called rules, invites personal conflict. You do see intimidation among female players, but outright abuses are rarer. Our program doesn't make a distinction between the sexes, because all athletes need the same guidance for respect."

Whether the antics of athletes promote or simply reflect a general decline of civility in public life is debatable. What is certain, however, is that sports -- with their explicit reliance upon rules of behavior, teamwork and authoritative supervision -- can provide a unique environment for bucking the negative trend.

Coaches and phys ed teachers are ideally positioned to help counter both harmful media images and the routine hostilities of competitive play, says Ron Slaby, a developmental psychologist with the Education Development Corporation in Newton, Mass., and an expert in youth violence.

Meanwhile, coaches enjoy a unique role in another respect: Many are granted enormous authority over young people -- typically more than classroom teachers, says Craig Clifford, co-author of Coaching for Character (see Resources).

"In many cases, if you win and don't do anything incredibly stupid to get in trouble, and don't go too much over budget, the administration will be basically hands-off."

Indeed, administrators have often ignored questionable behavior in coaches because of the prestige they can bring through strong sports programs, recruitment of star athletes and procurement of college scholarships. To a lesser extent, coaches often act as deputy administrators by overseeing disciplinary matters and upkeep of school facilities. Prompted by complaints from students and parents, however, a number of schools recently have taken action against coaches who were reported to have ridiculed the skills, efforts or sexual orientation of players -- especially after they lost a game.

In 1997, for example, the head basketball coach for eight seasons at an Indiana high school lost his job after being accused of verbally abusing and intimidating his players. The only coach one Kentucky high school had ever had in its 30 years of basketball was fired after allegedly using demeaning and embarrassing language toward students. And at Sproul Junior High in Colorado Springs, Colo., a new football coach was dismissed after parents complained that he spoke abusively to his players.

"The coach didn't know that this community would not tolerate that kind of behavior," says Ann Junk, who coaches boys' track at the school. "That kind of behavior" can encompass a wide range of invective and provocation often accepted as part and parcel of boys' athletics: "What are you, a bunch of sissies?" "Go out there and hurt somebody!" "With an arm like that, you couldn't make the girls' team."

Some forms of sexism in sports -- such as that illustrated by the preceding comment -- are clear-cut, notes Northeastern's Susan Leitao. But others are more difficult to call.

"I had a male coach ask me if he was being too tough on his girls' basketball team," she says. "The team was performing well, but his verbal outbursts often brought his players to tears. We may say 'boys can take it,' but is that style of coaching really good for anyone?"

In response to growing concerns about the behavior of young athletes, several state athletic organizations have developed new rules to establish better sporting standards. The Massachusetts Interscholastic Athletic Association (MIAA), for example, passed a no-taunting policy in 1994, classifying any behavior meant to demean or ridicule another player as a "flagrant unsportsmanlike foul." The regulation leaves no room for excuses. Officials warn players, coaches and spectators before the game starts, and the automatic penalty for an offense is dismissal from that game, as well as the next two.

"We decided there was no way we would allow the disruptive behavior and attitudes that kids see every Saturday and Sunday in collegiate and professional athletics," says Bill Gaine, deputy director of MIAA, which represents 344 schools. "If no one tells them it's wrong, they'll just replicate it."

The National Federation of State High School Associations (NFHS) has gone a step further. In the fall of 1997, the group released a new curriculum entitled "Citizenship Through Sports and Fine Arts." The athletics component of this manual offers coaches numerous tips about how to teach respect and good sporting behavior, whether during practice or a championship game.

"This curriculum isn't a pie-in-the sky effort to eliminate all bad examples from school sports, and it isn't anti-competition," says Robert Kanaby, executive director of the NFHS. "We have to teach civility in competitiveness. We have a tremendous opportunity to do that in school athletics because of the enormous interest young people have in sports."


A Coach's Conviction

At Brattleboro Union High School, in the southeastern corner of Vermont, football coach Bill Miller sips a Pepsi from an oversize plastic cup as he strides about his office, rarely pausing to sit during a two-hour conversation. Miller is a former All-American football player and Gettysburg College coach. Young people are drawn to him like fans to a rock star. They stop in his office to talk about a game, a relationship, a drug problem, you name it.

And when they're not stopping in, as on this cold November morning, Miller stands outside his office and watches them walk by on the way to class: "Did you get a part in the play this semester?" he asks a student at his locker. "Wow, new hairstyle -- looks great!" he calls to a girl as she turns the corner, her head newly adorned in braids. "What are you going to do about college?" he asks another.

His voice is loud, his posture confident, his dress impeccable. Miller is a man with a mission -- a convert, as it were, to the idea that school sports should be about something more than just winning.

"In the old days, I was a jerk," he says, referring to his years as a player and college coach. Miller recalls taunting opponents on the field, belittling women off the field and drinking heavily between games. This, he explains, was what he thought it meant to be a "cool" athlete. But time made Miller see things differently.

By his mid-thirties, he recognized not only that his behavior was insulting and beside the point of athletic competition, but that it got in the way of his being a good player and coach.

He took the coaching job at Brattleboro eight years ago, armed with a new philosophy: "There's more to football than just playing. Players have to be accountable for their mistakes, on and off the field. And they have to know that everything doesn't revolve around them."

At the beginning of every season, Miller calls a mandatory meeting for players and their parents, in which he announces his rules of the game. He asks parents to be present, he says, because he wants their support. He also wants to preempt complaints if one of their sons or daughters is suspended from a game because of a violation of the rules. In some cases, he also wants parents' behavior off the field, as well as on it. If they drive too fast out of the parking lot, he makes them run laps after practice. If they are caught drunk, he requires them to sit out the next two games. If he hears his male players making sexist put-downs -- especially to their girlfriends -- he confronts both players and girlfriends.

"Athletes get away with that because everybody thinks that's the way they're supposed to be," he says. "But I ask the girl: 'Why do you allow him to talk that way to you? Don't you want him to respect you? Walk away. Tell him you won't put up with it anymore until he cleans up his act.'"

Recently, Miller required a number of his worst offenders to view a one-woman play and discussion about a teenage victim of dating violence.

"You want to talk about eyes opening?" he says. "They got the message because, deep-down, they know it's wrong."

Jason Houle, an 18-year-old senior who has been on the team for three years, believes that Miller's message is something most athletes want to hear. "It makes me feel respected," he says, "to think that somebody cares about what others think about us. I don't want to be thought of as a bad person."

For all his progressive efforts, Miller is the first to admit that old habits die hard. "I'm spoiled," he says. "I lose my temper sometimes and yell and swear and get caught up in the moment. And when I first came here, I was called into the office for my language more than the kids. But," he adds, "I've gotten better."

The same techniques of self-assessment, goal-setting and persistent practice that shape winning teams are a coach's best bet for setting new personal standards, says Craig Clifford, co-author of Coaching for Character.

When setbacks happen, he advises, "Have a talk with yourself. Ask when you are yelling at your players and why you're doing it. Are you yelling at them because you're angry that they didn't win and it will make your record look bad, or because they were acting in an unacceptable way?"

For coaches and players alike, Brattleboro's Steve Holmes believes, learning how to lose is as fundamental as learning how to win.

"In life, every time a salesperson goes to a prospective account, does he or she make a sale? No. You might go to ten prospective buyers and get one. But what do you do if you have a background of winning-is-the-only-thing in athletics? Maybe you'll go home and take it out on your spouse and kids."

After nearly four decades of coaching young people, Holmes, a national javelin champion in the 60-64 age group, says he only recently began to think this way. His inspiration occurred after a girls' soccer game in 1996.

"We lost 2 to 1," he recalls. "I was all set to sit under a tree and talk about how bummed out they were. I had notes on a clipboard about why the girls didn't do this or that and was ready to discuss it.

"But when I turned around, they were all standing in a line, dancing the macarena. Then they said to the other school, 'Hey, come join us.' I dropped my clipboard. The parents saw me and laughed. It was very refreshing. And it was a wonderful lesson for an old macho guy."

By anyone's standards, dancing with one's opponents is a lot to ask. But Holmes and his colleagues around the country know that the new model of competition they envision will entail a few surprises.

"There's a role for everyone," offers Art Taylor of Northeastern's Center for the Study of Sport in Society. "Even parents can learn to cheer for good plays on both sides."


Starting Young

While the problems of violence and trash talk may be more acute in high school sports, the middle school years are a critical time for instilling good sporting behavior, argues Ann Junk of Colorado Springs. At Sproul Junior High, Junk observes, teachers, coaches and administrators have worked together to create a school-wide climate that refuses to tolerate bullying, whether in the cafeteria or on the athletic field. This, she says, enables her to take a simple, direct approach in confronting disrespect when she sees it.

"You don't have to be a licensed social worker to say that [abusive] language won't be tolerated," she explains. "You just have to have a standard line you can use when it happens."

When she hears trash talk, such as "You stupid fag!," for example, Junk simply stops the game and says: "That's mean-spirited and unfair, and we don't allow that here." Then she instructs the offending student to walk around the track, think about what he or she did wrong, and come back and talk to her after cooling down.

Art Taylor of Northeastern echoes the need for pre-formulated, supportable ultimatums. "This isn't something that necessarily takes a lot of time," he says. "It takes a very effective statement, such as: 'I don't care if you're the star player or the last player on the bench: If you're involved in any violence, you're off the team.' Then back it up the first time it occurs."

More broadly, Ann Junk relies on a 12-lesson curriculum entitled "Aggressors, Victims, and Bystanders" (see Resources). The curriculum assists students in examining their beliefs about conflict and violence and developing skills and strategies that help them think before they respond.

The program's four-step approach to conflict -- keep cool, size up the situation, think it through and do the right thing -- is not particularly novel, but its emphasis on the bystander's responsibility is.

"This is a way of changing norms about violence," says Ron Slaby, who developed the curriculum. "After all, where do these norms reside but in our heads?" The point, he explains, is to train young people to discourage aggression, even in their roles as bystanders, because "people will be far less likely to be aggressive if that is seen as doing something wrong." Consequently, the program encourages people who observe violence to intervene -- either by speaking up themselves or by contacting an authority figure who can.

At Sproul, the curriculum is administered in health classes, but Junk says she uses its vocabulary -- aggressor, victim and bystander -- whenever there is a conflict in a gym class. "I sit the kids down on the bench and get right in their faces and say 'We have a program here about aggressors, victims and bystanders, and right now you are being the aggressors: the mean people.'"

Although generic conflict resolution strategies can be effective in sports settings, Coaching for Character co-author Craig Clifford argues that the best tool for fostering respect in sports is the old-fashioned, intrinsically athletic concept of healthy competition.

"Your opponent makes it possible for you to excel," he explains. "Without an opponent, you can't play. Without a good opponent, you can't play well."

It's a simple philosophy, Clifford stresses: To view oneself and one's competitors as equally worthy is the heart of the game.

A map of Alabama, Florida, Georgia, Louisiana and Mississippi with overlaid images of key state symbols and of people in community

Learning for Justice in the South

When it comes to investing in racial justice in education, we believe that the South is the best place to start. If you’re an educator, parent or caregiver, or community member living and working in Alabama, Florida, Georgia, Louisiana or Mississippi, we’ll mail you a free introductory package of our resources when you join our community and subscribe to our magazine.

Learn More