Archive for November, 2013

ABUSIVE COACHES: Our Student-Athletes Deserve Better

 

A Few Words for Youth Coaches: How Not to Motivate Your Players

By Doug Abrams

 

Several errant high school and youth league coaches lost their jobs in the past two weeks. On three teams, failed efforts to motivate players produced well-publicized resignations, suspensions and arrests. On at least two of the three teams, the coaches’ conduct smacked of the sort of bullying or abuse that Rick Wolff explored well on Sunday’s show. Each coach should have known better.

For Making a Bad Play

The first casualty was Leake Academy’s Doyle Wolverton, the nation’s second-winningest high school girls basketball coach with a 1,245-181 record in 37 years. The Madden, Mississippi school’s basketball court is named for him, and he is a member of the Mississippi Private Schools Coaches Hall of Fame. Wolverton resigned last week following allegations that he angrily bit one of his 15-year-old players on her face during a time-out at the bench in the Rebelettes’ November 12 game at Columbia Academy.

According to the Jackson (Miss.) Clarion-Ledger, the girl’s father alleged that the coach grabbed his daughter “‘by the shirt and then bit her on the right side of the face,’ as if he was getting on to her for making a bad play.”  After the game, the girl was taken a local hospital with (according to sheriff’s deputies) a “bruised bite mark on the lower right side her face” that drew blood and broke the skin. When Wolverton resigned, the father decided not to press criminal assault charges.

“You Feel Bad For the Kids”

Little more than 300 miles from Leake Academy, Marion County (Jasper, Tenn.) High School head football coach Mac McCurry and three assistant coaches also left their jobs last week after two were arrested for vandalizing the school’s field house.  The coaches sought to motivate the Warriors by pinning the blame on supporters of local rival South Pittsburg, their opponents in the upcoming district championship game. According to the Associated Press, vulgarities in South Pittsburg’s colors were painted on the field house’s front door and outer rear wall, causing several thousand dollars’ damage.

One of McCurry’s assistant coaches also stands accused of breaking into South Pittsburg’s field house and stealing the Pirates’ play sheets and game plans a few days before the teams took the field. The Warriors staff also paid a former college running back to suit up at practice to provide the high schoolers stiffer preparation, a major violation under the regulations of the Tennessee Secondary School Activities Association (TSSAA), the body that administers the state’s interscholastic sports leagues. 

One member of the TSSAA Board of Control sums up the ongoing Marion County criminal investigation this way: “If you have no better morals than this, you don’t need to be around kids in any way. . . . You feel bad for the kids at Marion for having men like this as their role models.”

Cash Bounties and Verbal Abuse

Last week, I wrote about three Halifax pee wee AAA hockey coaches who were suspended for a year by Hockey Nova Scotia, the provincial governing body. After an independent investigation, the governing body found that the trio conducted a pay-for-play scheme and verbally abused their 11-12-year-old players last season.

Some parents reported that a coach would tape a $5 bill on the locker room wall before the game, a bounty awarded at the end to the player who delivered the most violent hit. One parent also told CBC News that his son feared going to practice because he thought that the coaches would target him for the swearing, insults, and name-calling that the trio had already leveled at several teammates. “A lot of the kids left the environment in tears, not from physical incidents but emotional incidents,” said the father, who explained that players “were often called ‘bitches’ and ‘buggers.’ The F-bomb was dropped repeated times.” The coaches gave some youngsters nicknames, including one whose nickname was “Stupid.”

Motivation Gone Awry

Each of these coaches was trying to motivate the team or individual players, but each coach was an outlier – someone who is off the scale that judges youth coaches. Thousands of other youth coaches would never engage in, or even consider engaging in, similar irresponsibility or criminality because they understand that working with children begins with setting the right example.

The best youth coaches motivate through the force of their personalities, the quality of their leadership, and the persuasiveness of their positive appeals to team pride.  Most players know that winning is more fun than losing, and most respond.  Particularly at the high school level and on elite youth league teams, non-response can bring the sort of reduced playing time that Rick discussed on Sunday.  Youth coaching holds no place for gutter antics such as those that landed the Mississippi, Tennessee and Nova Scotia coaches in the headlines. 

Motivation that depends on unethical behavior or downright criminality can scar young athletes emotionally and physically during the season and long afterwards. That troublesome prospect is reason enough for youth coaches to think twice before acting in ways that any reasonable adult would reject out of hand. But if coaches need another reason for prudent self-restraint, they should consider the potentially devastating effects that wrongdoing can have on their own futures in high school or youth league sports once their deeds go public locally, and perhaps even go viral. These days, very little wrongdoing witnessed by an entire team or other large group goes unnoticed or unreported for very long. People talk, word gets around, and onlookers often video events as they happen.

Doyle Wolverton was near the climax of a coaching career that, on the basketball court at least, seemed superlative at Leake Academy, whose website boasts about “educating the mind, body and spirit . . . for the 21st century.” Mac McCurry’s Marion County Warriors played in post-season playoff games, but now the TSSAA will reportedly decide whether the school may field a football team at all next season. As pee wee AAA coaches in a youth hockey program that expects its coaches to “teach the values of respect, responsibility, honesty and integrity,” the Halifax trio seemed destined to advance in the local coaching ranks.

But then came the resignations, suspensions, and arrests for bullying and other coaching abuse. In interscholastic sports and youth leagues alike, falls from coaching grace for misconduct can quickly erase prior accomplishments on the field. Benjamin Franklin was right: “It takes many good deeds to build a good reputation, and only one bad one to lose it.”

 

[Sources: Chris Thomas, Coach Accused of Biting Player, Jackson (Miss.) Clarion-Ledger, Nov. 19, 2013; Lucas L. Johnson II & Adrian Sainz, Tenn. Coach Resigns Amid Vandalism Scandal, Nov. 20, 2013; Stephen Hargis, 3 Coaches Off the Job as Allegations Grow in Marion County Football Scandal, Times Free Press (Chattanooga, Tenn.), Nov. 20, 2013; Doug Abrams, “Disciplining Youth Coaches for Cash Bounties and Verbal Abuse,” http://www.askcoachwolff.com/2013/11/19/abusive-coaches-bounties-aimed-12-year-old-hockey-players/]

ABUSIVE COACHES: More Bad News Coming Out of Rutgers….

I’m the first to admit it. I’ve been riding Rutgers University pretty hard over the last year. First, there was the stunning revelations and videotapes of the men’s basketball coach, Mike Rice, with his verbally and physically taunting his players.

Then there were the reports about the newly-hired Rutgers AD, Julie Hermann, that a number of her former volleyball players from the Univ of Tennessee that she wasn’t, uh,  the most pleasant coach to play for.

And now, there’s a new case involving a freshman football player named Jevon Tyree at Rutgers who was verbally bullied by the defensive coordinator, and then basically bypassed by the coach in a game two weeks ago when a wide receiver was told to go in and play defense ahead of Tyree, who is a defensive back.

Now, two things: one, it is agreed that every coach has the right to determine who plays and who doesn’t. That’s a given. And secondly, no one from the Rutgers football program has come forward to give their side of the story regarding Tyree. And without their side of the tale, it’s always hard to give an accurate account.

In any event, after being bypassed in that game, Tyree has now decided to quit the team, and plans to transfer. To me, as an outside observer, my question is: is this a case where the kid was just bullied by the coaches to quit? That is, perhaps the coaches, after having given this kid a scholarship, decided that he just isn’t good enough to play at the Div-I level, and instead of sitting down with him and his parents and explaining this decision to him, the coaches decided to make life so miserable for Tyree so that he would leave.

Now, again, I don’t know all the facts here. But as I mentioned on the show, one of the dirty little secrets about college coaches is that when they DO make a mistake on a recruit, they will ignore the kid, not give him any playing time, and in general, make practices so miserable that the kid gets the point and quits. And when he quits, the scholarship money goes back into the pot for the next recruit.

To me, as we focus more and more on bullying and coaches with no sensitivity, I think it’s a good thing to put these coaches under a harsh spotlight – to make them accountable for how they handle these athletes.

Yes, it is painful to hear and read about these situations, but the sooner we begin to get coaches to stand up and act as responsible adults, the better it will be for our kids.

ABUSIVE COACHES: Bounties Aimed at 12-Year-old Hockey Players?

 

Disciplining Youth Coaches for Cash Bounties and Verbal Abuse

By Doug Abrams

Remember the uproar last year when the National Football League suspended the New Orleans Saints’ defensive coordinator for offering his players bounties for hits that injured opposing players?

That was the pro game, but cash bounties surfaced again this month in the Acadia Minor Hockey Association (AMHA), near Halifax, Nova Scotia. Hockey Nova Scotia, the sport’s provincial governing body, handed one-year suspensions to three AMHA pee wee AAA coaches who allegedly offered their 11-12-year-old team what CBC News called “bribes” for throwing hits last season. In official complaints, some parents reported that a coach would tape a $5 bill on the locker room wall before the game, to be awarded at the end to the player who threw the most violent hit. (A few months later, Hockey Canada and Hockey Nova Scotia removed body checking from the pee wees altogether.)

The suspensions meted out by Hockey Nova Scotia stemmed from more than just pay-for-play. The parents also alleged ongoing verbal abuse of their pre-teens. One parent told CBC News that his son feared going to practice because he thought that the three coaches would target him for the swearing, insults, and name-calling that the trio had already leveled at several teammates. “A lot of the kids left the environment in tears, not from physical incidents but emotional incidents,” said the father, “[T]hey were often called ‘bitches’ and ‘buggers.’  The F-bomb was dropped repeated times.” The coaches gave some youngsters nicknames, including one whose nickname was “Stupid.”

Failed Consensus

Why did Hockey Nova Scotia have to conduct an independent investigation and discipline the coaches in the first place?  The provincial governing body handled the case at the request of the Acadia Minor Hockey Association itself, whose board of directors had failed to reach a consensus about the appropriateness of discipline for a season’s worth of cash bounties and verbal abuse.  The association’s president reported a stalemate because “it just seemed like half of our board supported the coaches; half our board did not.”

The association’s president called Hockey Nova Scotia’s one-year suspensions “probably the steepest . . . I’ve ever heard of.”  In the media, however, he did not assert the three coaches’ innocence.

In the Name of Money

The Nova Scotia pee wee hockey story remains troublesome on two levels. First, pay-for-play schemes hold no place in youth sports. Cash rewards may appear similar to the incentive clauses that appear in many pro contracts, but youth sports and pro sports are distinct. The pros are elite multimillionaire adults employed by multimillion-dollar (and sometimes billion-dollar) corporations to provide public entertainment that earns profits for owners and shareholders. Youth leaguers are children who are growing, learning and playing, not working. Their physical and emotional welfare, and not financial reward, is the bottom line. 

Particularly in contact and collision sports, cash rewards at any youth level are especially objectionable when they encourage uncontrolled violence. Because many youth leaguers are not proficient at throwing hits, many “violent” hits may also be dirty hits that violate rules that are designed to promote player safety. A youth coach’s primary responsibility to the team’s families is to take reasonable measures to prevent avoidable injury; coaches fail when they use money to unleash players.

A Solemn Pledge

The second troublesome message arising from the Acadia Minor Hockey Association’s coaching controversy is the inability of the association’s board of directors itself to discipline the three coaches. The association’s website contains a “Coaching and Ethical Philosophy” statement, which amounts to a solemn pledge to families who entrust their children to coaches. The statement guarantees each player important rights, including the rights “to practice sport in a team environment as an equal,” “to be treated with respect,” and “to try and fail.” The statement further instructs each coach to “teach the values of respect, responsibility, honesty and integrity to my players, understanding that I will be their best example.” By accepting appointment to coach youngsters, each AMHA coach agrees to “conduct myself in a responsible and professional manner.”

This charter of rights recognizes that coaching other people’s children is serious business. If the AMHA takes its ethical standards seriously and expects parents, coaches and players to do the same, the association’s board should have vindicated these standards itself, without passing the buck to Hockey Nova Scotia. In a local youth sports association with a few hundred members or less, board members frequently must pass judgment on the conduct of their friends or neighbors, including ones they appointed to coaching positions.  Passing judgment goes with the territory. If pay-for-play and a torrent of swearing, insults, and name-calling at 11-12-year-olds do not warrant disciplinary sanction, then nothing does.

Conclusion: Words and Actions

Sometimes board members need to think hard about what their youth sports association’s written ethical statement really means. Words on paper protect no one, and written statements do not apply themselves. Writing an ethical statement comes easy to anyone with a keyboard and a talent for expression. The hard part comes when the board must actually apply the statement to assure member families the respect, dignity and protection that the association promises.

 

[Sources: CBC News, Peewee Coaches Offered Cash for Violent Hits, Father Says, Oct. 4, 2013; CBC News, Hockey Coaches Accused of Bribing For Hits Suspended, Nov. 13, 2013; The Coaching and Ethical Philosophy of the Acadia Minor Hockey Association, http://acadiaminorhockey.com/files/coach_manager_guide_book_2013.pdf; Suspended Coaches File Appeals, Halifax Chronicle Herald, Nov. 14, 2013]

 

WHY SPORTS ARE IMPORTANT: Why the Intangibles are Important to Our Kids

Lest we ever forget….there are indeed intangible but extraordinarily valuable lessons that our kids take away from youth and amateur sports, and they really do make a significant contribution in their lives.

I write that after reading Jeff Pearlman’s stunning column which ran this past week in the Wall Street Journal about how he doesn’t want his kids to play team sports.

Pearlman, a long-time writer for Sports Illustrated and a best-selling author, was relating a long-ago story of his 12-year-old brother who had suffered on a youth soccer team in 1982 when the coach rarely played the boy.  Using that as a starting point, Pearlman went on to posit that kids today are forced to win, win, win at all costs, and that the pressures to do so greatly take away from the fun and enjoyment of the sport.

Pearlman concluded that he would much prefer that his own kids play a musical instrument, or become involved in science, or play only those sports which are invidual-based, presumably like golf or swimming. But above all, stay far away from team sports where one’s children run the risk on encountering a lout of a coach that his brother had to play for some 30 years ago.

I fully understand Jeff’s concerns, but I also feel compelled to point this out:

Kids who play team sports do learn some incredibly valuable lessons, such as teamwork and learning how to trust one’s teammates. When a youngster is a member of a team, and they work hard in practice to develop and master certain skills, and they then see those skills pay off in a game, that makes a youngster feel more self-confidence. That raises their sense of self-esteem.

Those kinds of experiences go a long way in teaching and reinforcing to a child that hard work does pay off, and that trusting one’s buddies is a good thing. And even better, those kinds of feelings only enhance the fun and pleasure of playing youth sports.

When a young college graduate lands a job in the real world, almost invariably their employer will assume that they understand the power of being a “team player.” Well, unless that kid played team sports, he or she is not really going to know what their boss means.

In terms of adversity, yes, obstacles do pop up. But for those youngsters who are able to confront adversity in sports, that sense of self-discipline will propel them when life throws other roadblocks in their way.

In terms of the pressure to win, I’m certainly not going to advocate that “winning is all that matters,” because that’s not true. But I will say that kids who learn how to focus their efforts into improving their game learn the intangibles of how to concentrate their efforts in order to take their skills to a higher level. And that’s important. No one realistically expects a kid to become a superstar, but as a parent, you do want your child to become more self-confident and more proficient in their skills in life. I would argue that team sports helps dramatically along those lines.

In truth, I could go on and on about the values of team sports. And I readily acknowledge that there are road bumps along the way. But in the end, you would be hard pressed to find any youngster who participated in team sports who didn’t benefit from that experience.

BOOK REVIEWS: Two Worth Your Time….

Editor’s note: as you might imagine, I receive a number of sports parenting books each month, and I do the best I can to go through them all and read them. Unfortunately, I’m not able to review all the books I receive, but here are two that are worth noting:

YOUR RECRUITING PLAYBOOK: Maximize Your Opportunities to Play College Sports by Steven F. Binder

The truth is, there are a lot of books and websites on the market today that are designed to help aspiring HS student-athletes market themselves to college coaches. What Binder does in his readable book is to cut through a great deal of the bureaucracy of the college recruiting system and presents the basics that any athlete and their parents would need to know.

There are several important nuggets in the book, but one of the best is a chart which details just how meaningful it is to receive a questionnaire from a college coach, or a follow-up email, or a personal phone call from a coach, or to be asked to visit the campus, or to be told you’re an official recruit by the admissions office. The analysis is worth knowing.

As Binder points out, the sooner you know just how serious that college coach is about bringing you on board, the better you’ll know where you stand.

True, some of the advice in the book is a bit simplistic (e.g. play on a travel team, sign up for showcases in order to be seen), but overall, for the HS athlete who is just beginning to think about playing sports in college, this is a good primer with which to start.

For more information, go to collegesportsrecruiting.net or binderhoops.com

TAKE THE LEAD: Make Youth Sports What They Were Meant to Be by Kathy Hogan

Hogan, a former field hockey player at Duke and a mother of four, has compiled an extraordinary number of inspirational sports stories that will entertain any sports fan.

In my years of working with youngsters, I have found that a lot of young athletes love to hear true stories about great athletes who have overcome tremendous odds and adversity to succeed. That’s the attraction of this book.

But the beauty of Hogan’s work is that she doesn’t spend too much time with the stories that are already well known (like Michael Jordan being cut from his HS basketball team as a sophomore), but instead focuses on sports stories of individuals that are not well known or well publicized.

That makes her work particularly unique and worthwhile. It’s worth getting a copy. For more information, contact Kathy Hogan at WriteAwayInc@msn.com

NEW RULE IN COLLEGE BASEBALL: Get to Know Flat-Seamed Baseballs in 2015

Here’s a new wrinkle with the kinds of baseballs that are going to be used in college baseball.

Starting with the 2015 season, all Division I baseball programs in the NCAA will be using balls with flat seams.

Why?

Because apparently flat-seamed baseballs travel a lot farther than the baseballs that are currently used now. Today’s college baseballs have seams that are raised. And college baseball coaches voted for the flat-seam balls because they want more offense in their game.

So..let me see if I’m following this. The NCAA finally got rid of aluminum baseball bats a few years ago because the scores were more like football scores, like 21-14. Batting averages were hovering around .300 for everyone. And games lasted forever because pitchers couldn’t get anybody out.

And of course, there was the growing concern about pitchers being maimed by line drives off the trampoline-like aluminum bats.

And so, the college coaches and NCAA voted in a new kind of bat -the BBCOR, which was designed to be safer and not to launch baseballs like missiles.

Problem was, the BBCOR bats reduced the level of scoring in college to its lowest level in 40 years.But the coaches knew that they couldn’t fiddle with the bats anymore. So they decided instead to fiddle with the baseballs.

They experimented with flat-seamed baseballs which, by the way, are used in professional baseball. And boom! they seemingly found the solution. By using flat-seamed baseballs, the NCAA thinks it has found the tonic to increase scoring again (e.g. hit more home runs) while still not endangering pitchers with line drives off of super-hyped bats. That is, the BBCOR bats are still to be used.

Honestly, only time will tell if this solution makes sense. Starting in 2015, we’ll find out. But I still don’t understand why it’s so important that college baseball feature a lot of scoring. No one has explained to me yet.

PARENTS v. COACHES: Holding a Middle School Football Dinner at Hooter’s?

 

When A Coach’s Decision Clashes With Parents’ Values

By Doug Abrams

“[I’m] not allowing myself to be bullied by a vocal minority,” Corbett Middle School football coach Randy Burbach said defiantly last week, adding that he was fighting a “war I want to win.” The coach dug in his heels after parents of some of the Oregon team’s 12-14-year-olds objected to his decision to hold the post-season awards dinner at a nearby Hooters, the restaurant chain that features (as a local television station aptly put it) “chesty waitresses in skimpy outfits.” 

Some parents said that their sons would not attend the awards dinner. The school’s athletic director said that when he requested Burbach to move it to “a different venue so that all of the athletes and their families could attend and feel comfortable about the location and enjoy the season,” the first-year volunteer coach was “unyielding and emphatically said no.”

The AD explained that Hooters “objectifies women” and thus “send[s] the wrong message to our young men,” but Burbach responded that the boys themselves requested Hooters when he sought their input. Explaining that his own children had a positive experience at Hooters when they were 12, Burbach added that the restaurant was an “OK venue” for the dinner. The AD announced that the dinner was not an official school function.

Regardless of any accomplishments during the season, Burbach misperceives a coach’s role with other people’s children. When they decline to expose their young sons to “chesty waitresses in skimpy outfits,” parents exercise their prerogative as the primary stewards of their children’s upbringing. The parents may be right or they may be wrong, but the final call is theirs, and not the coach’s.  And, contrary to what the coach told the media, parents who objected to Hooters did not “bully” him or wage “war” with him.

Parental Prerogatives

When parents enroll their son or daughter in a sports program, they grant the coach a tangential role in the child’s upbringing. Most coaches take this responsibility seriously, often providing leadership and direction that parents themselves cannot readily provide alone. When coaches meet the challenge, players remember for the rest of their lives.

Parents, however, do not cede their primary childrearing role to the coach. Some team decisions rest with the coach, some rest with the parents, and some rest somewhere in the middle. Corbett’s concerned parents did not challenge the coach’s starting lineup or practice agendas, or some other decision relating to strategy or technique.  Whether to patronize Hooters with their young boys is a family decision that squarely rests with parents because responsibility for childrearing begins in the home and not in the locker room.

Any middle school coach should know the difference between Hooters’ “chesty waitresses” and a family restaurant with banquet rooms.  With any degree of foresight, Burbach should have anticipated that some parents would hold sincere objections to Hooters, and he should have remained sensitive to those objections. It is no answer that the 6th-8th-grade boys made or contributed to the selection. Declining to give children everything they want is the essence of responsible adult leadership.

Burbach says that he used to bring his own 12-year-old children to Hooters for a positive experience, and that is his prerogative as a parent. But it is also every other parent’s prerogative, based on their own values, to decide the appropriateness of Hooters for their own young teenage sons. No family – not even a “vocal minority” – should face the peer pressure and social ostracism that may accompany non-attendance after the players had been together all season. Each family earned the opportunity to attend the dinner at a venue they would find suitable for their children.

 “Bullying”

By claiming “bullying” and “war,” Burbach demonstrated both recklessness and disrespect. Two weeks ago, I wrote that when adults misuse the term “bullying” in the public school context, they risk trivializing official efforts to combat true bullying and cyberbullying, which victimizes nearly half the nation’s elementary and secondary students before they graduate.  The risk is greatest when misuse comes from the lips of a teacher, coach or other school official.  Burbach is a volunteer, but he assumes the role of school agent when he coaches the middle school team.  

Bullied and cyberbullied students typically face genuine physical and emotional scarring unlike anything a coach might face when parents happen to disagree with him about where to hold an awards dinner. Careless use of the term “bullying” – particularly by a school agent – threatens public support for in-school initiatives that protect vulnerable students from physical and emotional intimidation.

 “War”

When American troops are fighting in harm’s way, we on the home front should respect their service by reserving the term “war” for the real thing. Burbach is not alone in his loose language because, at one time or another, many of us try to score points with armchair invocations of armed conflict. President Johnson’s 1960s “War on Poverty,” and the more recent sustained “War on Drugs,” for example, demonstrate that even the nation’s leaders frequently speak too loosely. But describing as “war” a coach’s disagreement with parents about a middle school football team’s awards dinner rings hollow while men and women serve in places like Iraq and Afghanistan. 

Conclusion

The Supreme Court is right that parents hold primary responsibility for “inculcation of moral standards . . . and elements of good citizenship.”The calculus does not somehow change when parents enroll their son or daughter in a sports program.  Parents do not shed their personal values at the locker room door.

 

[Sources: Oregon Middle School Coach: Hooters a “Fine Venue” for Football Party, http://www.upi.com/Odd_News/2013/11/05/Oregon-middle-school-coach-Hooters-a-fine-venue-for-football-party/UPI-92091383691466/ (Nov. 6, 2013); Hooters Picking Up Tab For Fired Corbett Coach, http://www.kgw.com/news/Corbett-football-team-to-hold-party-at-Hooters–230573061.html (Nov. 5, 2013); Hooters Middle School Party Is Still On, Despite Corbett District’s Objections, http://www.oregonlive.com/gresham/index.ssf/2013/11/hooters_middle-school_football.html Nov. 4, 2013); Hooters Party For Middle Schoolers: Corbett Coach Says He’s Been Fired Along With Brother, Son, http://www.oregonlive.com/gresham/index.ssf/2013/11/hooters_party_for_middle_schoo.html]

DANGERS OF SOCIAL MEDIA: How Today’s Technology Can Quickly Go Astray

 

How Social Media Derailed Friday Night Football in Sanford, Maine

By Doug Abrams

 After rumors of potential deadly violence produced a one-day postponement, the Sanford Spartans downed the Massabesic Mustangs, 49-13, in Maine high school football action on Saturday afternoon, October 26. The annual game, the final regular-season contest for both teams, is billed as “The Battle of the Ridge.”  The local rivalry that has simmered for decades, but trash talking on social media brought matters to the boiling point this time before players ever took the field.  

Sanford and Massabesic played Saturday afternoon’s game without incident, but the momentary scare that left Sanford’s Cobb Stadium empty on Friday night demonstrates once again why parents, coaches and teachers need to communicate with their children about social media’s potency. The need for communication is not unique to football, and indeed extends to other youth league and high school sports, especially ones that enjoy high local profiles.

To Ensure a Safe Environment

On Friday morning, a Massabesic student told the school’s resource officer that her boyfriend overheard that one or more classmates were planning to bring a gun to that night’s game.  There were also rumors that rival students would fight one another at the game.  In the cautious atmosphere that has prevailed in the nation’s public schools since the 1999 Columbine shootings, Massabesic school authorities took the reports seriously, though an investigation soon found them unsubstantiated.

Massabesic administrators conferred with their Sanford counterparts, who agreed to postpone the contest until Saturday afternoon because authorities could better maintain security during daylight hours than after dark. To deter vandalism, Sanford’s coach left Cobb Stadium’s lights burning all night on Friday.

At 7 a.m. on Saturday, a few hours before the rescheduled kickoff, Massabesic school officials found a suspicious package wrapped in Christmas paper – labeled “To Massabesic, from Sanford” — outside the athletic director’s office near the student parking area. The Sheriff’s Department removed the package and reported later that it contained “a sex toy and an explicit note describing that they could do with the toy.”

Why did the longtime football rivalry threaten to spiral out of control this time? Massabesic’s principal told WNTW-TV that “students appear to have gotten carried away with trash talk on social media.”  The Bangor Daily News confirmed that “trash talking on Facebook between students from the two schools during the week . . . played into the situation.”

The 21st Century Town Square

More than once in the past few years, Rick Wolff and I have talked on “The Sports Edge” about the growing dangers of technological trash talking in youth league and high school sports.  Rick deserves the credit for raising the topic because he, and not I, initially saw what was coming.

Some other people were not quite so perceptive. When Rick and I first discussed how quickly misuse of social media can raise local youth sports temperatures, a listener emailed me the next day to suggest that we were simply trying to fill a Sunday morning hour with a non-existent problem.

The Sanford-Massabesic incident demonstrates once again that the social media problem does exist in youth sports, and that the problem is likely to grow more serious as technology continues to preoccupy the lives of young Americans.  According to a Pew Research Center survey published earlier this year, 95% of teens are online, a percentage that has remained consistent since 2006. In a 2011 study, 76% of 14-24-year-olds said that digital abuse is a serious problem for people their age. These hefty percentages include most students who play or follow youth sports, and these students are not immune from the recklessness that frequently accompanies indiscriminate use of social media.

In years past, players and fans might exchange pre-game insults face-to-face, by anonymous written notes or telephone calls, or by trading catcalls in town. A handful of listeners might see or hear an exchange, but memories would fade and second-hand accounts would usually leave most people unmoved. 

Social media, however, is the early 21st century’s town square. At a moment’s notice, anyone with a keyboard can stoke hundreds of local followers with indelible, and frequently anonymous, insults or threats on an instantaneous, universal forum.  Anyone seeking to outdo a message can dispatch an equally indelible, readily accessible return volley. The resulting one-upmanship can quickly unravel, especially when virtual messages turn more confrontational than anything that people would normally say to someone whose face, reaction, and tone of voice they could see and hear. 

The father of one of Massabesic’s captains explained why misuse of social media can be so incendiary. “When you have face to face communication with somebody,” he said, “you’re less like to say something offensive or frightening. On social media, you can just type it out. It doesn’t matter.”

A Leading Role for Prevention Efforts

What can parents, coaches and teachers do? Effective measures begin with prevention efforts, and reaction remains a last resort when these efforts fail. Prevention efforts will not avert all unwelcome incidents such as the one that surfaced in Maine, but they will avert many.  Prevention begins during the preseason period, long before authorities resort to postponements, cancelations, discipline, or other reactions.  And long before something unfortunate happens. 

Education is the key to prevention. In the first instance, preventing abuse of social media depends on adults who maintain open lines of communication with players and other students.  Adults need to listen to what the youngsters say, but also remain sensitive to sudden mood swings that might signal unspoken problems. The dialog should urge students not only to refrain from initiating abusive exchanges, but also to remain resolute when others initiate unwelcome exchanges.  No athlete or team likes to be publicly insulted, but resoluteness can come easier when recipients are conditioned in advance about what to expect. Forewarned is forearmed.

Because so many parents lack experience with social media, effective prevention efforts may fall on trained teachers, the professionals charged with maintaining decorum and delivering the school curriculum.  At least a few hours of instruction in cyber etiquette belongs in school anti-violence and anti-bullying curricula, or in computer courses. Last month in Maine, events unfolded after a Massabesic student told the school resource officer about her boyfriend’s message in accordance with in-school instruction that encouraged trust.       

Despite local rivalries on the field, Sanford and Massabesic school authorities and coaches collaborated to assure a safe Saturday afternoon game.   When suspected or potential abuse of social media crosses school boundaries (as it did in Maine), principals and other administrators should work together.  At a league’s preseason coaches meetings, every coach should agree to collaborate about any future social media issues (and about other issues relating to player health and safety), and they should freely exchange ideas about best practices. Coaches may remain understandably reluctant to exchange playbooks and game strategies with one another, but coaches are allies and not adversaries on matters of student safety, character education, and the integrity of league play.

If coaches anticipate potential problems, they should discuss social media during preseason meetings with players and parents alike. Then the coaches should reinforce instruction periodically throughout the season, when teen temptations to exercise bad judgment may grow stronger as competitive pressures build.  Surprises are inevitable in any season, but seasons run most smoothly when surprises remain at a minimum. In many places today, trash talking on social media from opposing players or fans should come as no surprise.  

[Sources: High School Rivalry Prompts Threat, Prank With Sex Toy, http://www.newhampshire.com/apps/pbcs.dll/article?AID=/20131030/AGGREGATION/131039947/0/newhampshire0311 (Oct. 30, 2013); Larry Mahoney, Massabesic-Sanford Football Game Moved to Saturday After Rumors of Violence, Bangor Daily News, Oct. 25, 2013; Cynthia Johnson, Postponed Massabesic-Sanford Football Game Played Without Incident, http://www.wmtw.com/news/maine/York-County/postponed-massabesicsanford-game-played-without-incident/-/9284124/22652566/-/fc3owj/-/index.html (Oct. 27, 2013); Ryan McLaughlin, Sanford High School Students Charged After Package Containing Sex Toy Found Outside Massabesic, Bangor Daily News, Oct. 29, 2013]

DANGERS OF CONCUSSIONS: Are We Witnessing the End of Football?

The Insitute of Medicine released some more devastating studies about the dangers of playing tackle football and concussions this week. As reported by Ken Belson in the New York Times, here’s a quick summary:

> HS football players suffer twice as many concussions as do college football players.

> Football players as young as 7 suffer concussions which are comparable in magnitude to HS football players who suffer concussions.

> Football concussions are double what athletes suffer in such sports as soccer, lax, wrestling, or ice hockey.

> Kids who suffer concussions in games or practices don’t often report them. Either because they don’t know what a concussion is, or because they sense that it’s “cool” to have one’s bell rung and yet not report it.

As more and more of these studies keep being reported, it’s clear that we may be witnessing the beginnning of the end of HS football in this country. That may sound extreme, but bear in mind that as the insurance companies have to cover any medical damages from a youngter who plays football, the insurance carriers may decide to simply charge so much that local HS’s might decide they can’t afford it.

Hence, HS football might be replaced by the equivalent of travel football, where parents who opt to have their kid play football plays for a travel team which competes against other travel football teams. The costs of the team (including insurance) would be paid for by the parents.

My sense is that this is the direction we’re most likely heading. Of course, the ideal solution would be if, somehow, there was some sort of medical technology breakthrough that could develop a helmet that could actually prevent concussions.

That may sound like an impossible task, but bear in mind that until 30 years ago, when one suffered a serious knee injury like an ACL tear, it would pretty much the end of one’s sports career. Knee operations back then would end careers. 

But these days, thanks to amazing orthopedic developments, an athlete can be scoped with a bad knee, and be back competing on the field in a matter of weeks. And that’s remarkable.

Let’s hope that we have the same of medical advances with concussions.