Advancing Fair Play: East Rockaway’s Compact

by Linda Chion Kenney

Winning is important, but it isn’t everything in East Rockaway, N.Y., where Superintendent Arnold Dodge says the best defense against offensive sportsmanship is a qualified coaching staff that keeps its players and parents well informed and involved.

Toward that end, Dodge, who runs a small school system with a strong sports program in Long Island’s Nassau County, credits his athletic director, Dominick Vulpis, for keeping the playbook straight when it comes to the expectations the school district sets for fair play and fan decorum.

And neither school official is shy about banning a fan if necessary.

“We’re aggressive about that, making sure people understand that it’s kids playing a game here. They’re exercising and feeling good about themselves, and we’re not going to have the taunting and teasing and bullying that sometimes goes on in the stands,” Dodge says. “Our coaches understand winning is not everything, that wholesome, healthful exercise under the guidance of a trained coach is every bit as important as winning a game.”

Pre-season Warnings
To drive the point home, Vulpis schedules mandatory “Tip Off” meetings for all interscholastic sports at the beginning of each season. Coaches meet collectively with athletes and their parents to discuss the purpose of school athletics (“as preparation for life rather than for the limited opportunities for college scholarships or professional careers”) and the parent’s code of ethics (“applaud good plays; don’t dwell on bad ones”).

After the large-group discussion, students are assigned to classrooms for meetings with their respective coaches. There, both the players and their parents are required to sign three contracts: a commitment to follow through with team and sportsmanship requirements; a pledge against hazing; and a pledge against substance abuse. Coaches take the opportunity to talk about their sport and coaching philosophy, including how they made their cuts and what they look for in determining who gets playing time.

Parents and students who do not show up for the tip-off meeting are required to make an appointment to watch a videotape and sign contracts before the child is allowed to suit up.

“That’s how I can tell if a coach is selling this or not,” Vulpis said. “If I see only five or six players show up, it’s a sign right away the coach didn’t promote this as an important event.”

Vulpis says he evaluates his coaches on the same “4 C’s” they are expected to teach and model for their students and fans: competence, character, civility and citizenship. “If you don’t evaluate your coaches in these four areas,” he says, “they’re not going to buy into it.”

Spectator Supervision
Even with the best-laid and promoted plans, sportsmanship can turn sour. That’s why Dodge’s 1,300-student school district hires supervisors — teachers, custodians, secretaries or any other school employee – to wear specially marked orange jackets to athletic events.

We go over with them what to say to an individual, in a low voice, who is acting inappropriately,” Vulpis says. “There are people who will make bad choices, but you’re not the Gestapo. I tell them, ‘Your job is to note who these people are, address it and if it gets out of hand to call me or go into the office and call the police.’ ”

But it’s not only the fan who gets taken to task if necessary.

“If I think a coach has been out of line with an official, I’ll ask, ‘How do you think you could have handled that differently?’” Vulpis says. “And they do have a way of taking care of that, and that’s with rating cards. I let them know it’s not about the immediate second; that if you shoot off the hip you’re just fueling the parents behind you. And if you do shoot off the hip, you’re going to be held accountable for it.”