Targeting Sportsmanship

Taming uncivil behavior, especially by parents in the stands, is becoming an unavoidable initiative in school districts by Linda Chion Kenney

Superintendent David Prescott heard about the verbal pressure, the parents calling coaches to complain about the player who wasn’t any good, the play they couldn’t comprehend and the playing time their kids didn’t get. He witnessed the bad behavior of raucous spectators at sporting events heckling and ranting vitriol under the watchful eye of impressionable youngsters.

He grew concerned as good coaches resigned and others threatened to, and he noticed that able coaching prospects often were reluctant to step up to the plate because it was not worth their time and sanity to withstand the berating and taunting of out-of-bounds spectators.

“We have actually asked people to leave sporting events, but it doesn’t necessarily mean it’s going to be better the next time,” says Prescott, superintendent of the 3,700-student Albert Lea Area Schools in south-central Minnesota. “Most people will cool it when you talk to them. But the others, you can pick them out because they’re usually sitting alone because nobody wants to sit with them. Angry people. And what they yell certainly doesn’t set the right tone for our students.”

Behavorial Rules
Spurred on by incidents of bad sportsmanship, the Albert Lea district, working through a committee of stakeholders, published a set of standards that spell out for players, coaches, students, parents and community members the school district’s expectations for good sportsmanship at interscholastic athletic events. Taking effect this year with the winter season, players and their coaches and families were asked to sign, before play commenced, a compact to uphold the principles of appropriate behavior relative to each group. A parent, for example, signs a promise not to berate or taunt officials, coaches or opposing teams; a coach signs a promise not to force athletes to specialize too soon in one sport at the expense of all others.

The document, titled “Athletics the Right Way,” was influenced by last year’s “Sports Done Right” report produced at the University of Maine. It takes a broad look at a myriad of issues involving many groups — with a notable focus on spectators at interscholastic sports events in Albert Lea.

Indeed, many school districts have begun to use the comprehensive “Sports Done Right” report, which emphasizes seven core principles and supporting core practices for creating an environment conducive to “discipline, respect, responsibility, fairness, trustworthiness and good citizenship.” The report identifies “out-of-bounds” issues — troubling trends in behavior on and off the field — that should be remedied.

“The biggest problem we have at interscholastic events is with parents because how do we discipline parents?” Prescott says. “We don’t have much control over them. What we’re trying to do with this document is encourage peer pressure from other parents. Parents know appropriate behavior, and when they see inappropriate behavior, we hope they will intercede.”

A Violent Reaction
Like Albert Lea, many school districts begin to address poor sportsmanship while it’s a nagging problem but not necessarily a matter that demands a full-court press. Other school leaders have to confront a volatile situation in the wake of flagrantly foul behavior, which is why in January the Deer Park Union Free School District in central Long Island hosted a packed public meeting to discuss its decision to suspend the boys junior varsity basketball season after three players stood accused of attacking a younger teammate in the locker room.

Tragically, some districts have to deal with the unthinkable, as when a disgruntled parent in Canton, Texas, about 60 miles east of Dallas, was arrested for last year’s shooting of Canton High School football coach and athletic director Gary Joe Kinne Jr., who recovered and has since joined the coaching staff at Baylor University. The parent, Jeffrey Doyle Robertson, who had been upset with the coaching system at the school for quite some time, was found guilty in February and sentenced in March to 20 years in prison.

In a society that glorifies athletes and tolerates ethical transgressions in collegiate and professional sports, alarming reports from the field of schoolhouse athletics abound, starting as early as the elementary school and youth league levels. The allegations of sexual assault against members of the nationally ranked men’s lacrosse team at Duke University captured national attention this spring. Compounding the media’s glare on poor sportsmanship is the growing competitiveness and rising costs of increasingly selective colleges.

An editorial in the San Jose Mercury News last year put the issue of monetary competitiveness in interscholastic athletics in perspective. Because fewer than 200,000 of the nation’s 75 million school-age children ultimately will earn full-ride scholarships for their athletic prowess, the editorial concluded: “It’s past time for the 99 percent of parents whose children won’t win college scholarships to reclaim control over youth sports and bring back sanity and fun to our children’s lives.”

Donald Collins, the commissioner of athletics for the San Francisco Unified School District, addresses the issue of sportsmanship on his website (www.donaldcollins.org). There, he keeps track of what he calls the “parade of awful things that happen when you lose that dignified environment.” Noted, for example, is the high school coach who was suspended for cheating after he was videotaped moving a yard marker during a football game and a parent who body-slammed a high school basketball referee after he ordered the man’s wife out of the gym for allegedly yelling obscenities.

Collins defines good sportsmanship as the “obligation to make sure that you have a dignified setting, where people can express themselves in a dignified manner while still supporting their team.” He welcomes the growing movement to legislate and otherwise establish a more professional service delivery of sports to youth.

“And part of that movement is because people have seen that someone has to help parents put things in perspective,” Collins says. “Not all of the sportsmanship activities involve playing athletes and coaches. Some of the acts are simply rabid parents, rabid spectators who have no notion of how to behave, and the reason they have no notion of how to behave is because no one taught them.”

With 17 years in sports administration and the past four as commissioner in the San Francisco district, Collins offers a contextual understanding for why good sportsmanship is essential (“We’re asking athletes to be dignified while they do an inherently undignified act, which is to beat somebody”) and why his district supports that expectation with more than just regulations and penalties. The comprehensive effort, he says, requires education, training and an emphasis on sound game management, which includes making sure the clocks are running right, the books are being kept accurately, potential problems are being anticipated and adequate security is on hand.

Sports coaches in San Francisco are required to become certified through the American Sports Education Program, which will become a statewide standard for all coaches in California beginning in late 2007. San Francisco also uses resources from the Positive Coaching Alliance, which was established at Stanford University in 1998, and the Pursuing Victory With Honor program, which is a product of the Character Counts Coalition, affiliated with the Josephson Institute of Ethics in Los Angeles.

With increased training and a concerted focus on the issue, Collins says he has seen in San Francisco “far fewer” incident reports related to poor sportsmanship.

“Everyone has a mutual interest in this,” Collins says. “And they need to see it’s not an intangible you’re talking about, but something that becomes part of your daily life involving where you can play, who you can play and what people think about you. My goodness, would you really want to be in a position where you can’t come to a game unless you’re accompanied by your parents? Do you want to be in the newspaper because you had a hundred people brawling at a game? Do you really want to be putting that much time into athletics when you could be running your school?”

Josephson’s Findings
Of course, in the world of interscholastic athletics, coaches, parents and spectators aren’t the only ones who need to be educated. Indeed, many school leaders believe the purposes of interscholastic athletics should be instructional and developmental, and that sports are a means to build a youngster’s character.

The Josephson Institute conducts a biennial survey on sportsmanship, which is believed to be the most comprehensive measure of the attitudes and behaviors of high school athletes. (Josephson’s latest report was to be released this spring.) The 2004 survey of 4,200 high school athletes identified high percentages of students who said they thought it is proper to deliberately inflict pain in football to intimidate an opponent (58 percent males, 24 percent females); trash talk a defender after every score (47 percent males, 19 percent females); soak a football field in advance of a game to slow down an opponent (27 percent males, 12 percent females); build up a foul line in baseball to keep bunts fair (28 percent males, 21 percent females); throw intentionally at a batter who hit a home run the last time up (30 percent males, 16 percent females); and illegally alter a hockey stick to improve shooting (25 percent males, 14 percent females).

Findings such as these prompted Michael Josephson, the institute’s president, to warn that “the values of millions of youngsters are directly and dramatically influenced by the values conveyed in high school sports” and that “coaches and parents simply aren’t doing enough to assure that the experience is a positive one.”

Although the survey found 90 percent of the athletes thought their coaches set a good example, large percentages also endorsed coaching practices that involve intimidating or influencing future calls by referees (51 percent males, 30 percent females); instructing how to illegally hold and push opponents without getting caught (45 percent males, 22 percent females); advising a player to fake an injury to obtain an extra timeout for the team (39 percent males, 22 percent females); and using profanity and insults to motivate players (37 percent males, 15 percent females).

“Too many youngsters are confused about the meaning of fair play and sportsmanship, and they have no concept of honorable competition,” Josephson reported in his organization’s most recent report. “As a result they engage in illegal conduct and employ doubtful gamesmanship techniques to gain a competitive advantage,” he said. “It appears that today’s playing fields are the breeding ground for the next generation of corporate pirates and political scoundrels.”

The Control Factor
As alarming as this assessment is, it’s encouraging to know that dealing with student athletes is among the easiest tasks a school administrator faces when it comes to sportsmanship.

That’s the view of David Hoch, who spent 24 years as a coach, including 14 at the college level. Now the athletic director at Loch Raven High School in Towson, Md., Hoch, has a doctorate in sports management and 38 years in education. He has written more than 200 articles and has presented across the country on sportsmanship.

“Athletes you have control over,” Hoch says. “If your athlete doesn’t behave properly [and] exhibit good sportsmanship, the coach can simply say, ‘Sit by me on the bench,’ or ‘We’re going to do a little extra work at practice,’ or ‘You’re going to have to sit out the next game.’ You have a handle on the athlete. You don’t always have a handle on the fans or on the parents.”

Good coaches, Hoch says, use practices and games as “teachable moments.”

“Every single day our coaches should be helping young people learn and grow and mature,” he says. “A good coach goes a long way toward improving things. Consequently, a bad coach, one who doesn’t mandate or enforce good sportsmanship, can really be a trigger for bad sportsmanship. If you have one coach out of bounds, you have problems.”

Sometimes, though, even the best-laid plans and coaches aren’t enough. That is especially true when it comes to what Hoch calls “the absolutely hardest group to deal with, the individual who comes to your game who’s not a member of your school community.”

As Hoch put it, “You have no link, you have no way to communicate with, to educate, the person who drove a hundred miles just to see the game.”

Banning Fans
In some instances, school districts have had to ban an out-of-control fan — or at least to civilly escort him or her from the stadium or gymnasium after an outburst of shamelessly uncivil behavior. At a school board meeting in February, Susan Dudley, the superintendent of the Edinburg, Ill., schools, publicly shared one such incident that occurred during a boys basketball game.

“It was a really close game, and it should have been a close game, because there were two highly competitive and talented teams playing a fairly aggressive game,” Dudley says. “Our players kept their cool. They played hard and they played to win, but they didn’t get overly aggressive and they were respectful to the referees and to the other players.”

Meanwhile, two fans in the stands had to be escorted from the gym for what Dudley calls “mouthing in the crowd.”

She adds: “There’s a way to cheer your team on without being derogatory toward the referee or his call. For the most part, we don’t have bad fans, but it’s that one or two who makes everybody want to crawl under the bleachers because it’s so embarrassing. Even their spouses won’t sit with them.”

Dudley regularly writes a column for the town newspaper and on one occasion she focused on the decorum of spectators at school sports events. This time, she was responding to some blatantly out-of-bounds behavior during baseball season. “It was just a way to make people think a little bit,” she says. “What you say isn’t just between you and the umpire at that moment. It’s a reflection on the entire student body and the community.” Dudley says her comments were received well by parents who told her it was a subject that needed to be addressed.

When push comes to shove, however, Dudley says a school district’s best defense lies with its coaching staff. Having capable basketball coaches, she says, is what prevented the fan fracas in February from becoming something worse and that allowed her student athletes an opportunity to demonstrate their poise under pressure, which she reinforced with praise at the school board meeting.

“The coach is one of the more important parts of your team,” Dudley says. “They set the standards. They set the expectations, they model those expectations and they work with the kids every day. Our job is much more than coaching a team and winning a ball game. We’re raising children. It’s a big responsibility and we have a hand in how those children turn out and what kind of adults they become. We need to take that obligation seriously.”

Linda Chion Kenney is a senior reporter with the Sunbelt Newspapers in Brandon, Fla. E-mail: lckourtown@aol.com