How Youth Coaches Can Lose Players’ Respect Quickly: Throw a Game
By Doug Abrams
In Tennessee girls basketball action last week, Riverdale High School faced Smyrna High School in a district tournament match-up. Both teams tried their hardest all game. The trouble was that, obeying their head coaches’ instructions, both teams tried their hardest to lose.
The coaches knew that the winner would face defending state and national champion Blackman High in the semifinals, but that the loser would move into the opposite bracket. With both teams intent on throwing the game, the London Daily Mail called the contest a “farce.” (Yes, the story quickly reached beyond the United States to an international audience.)
Players on both teams deliberately missed more than a dozen free throws and committed multiple game violations. When one girl was about to try to score on her own team’s basket, the referees finally stopped the game to warn both coaches.
After the referees filed their game report, the Tennessee Secondary School Athletic Association (TSSAA) dismissed both schools from the tournament, fined both $1500, and placed both on probation for the upcoming season. The county schools director suspended both coaches for at least next season.
“We Were Embarrassed”
Manipulating tournament pairings by tanking games is not an entirely new youth league coaching strategy, but tanking usually leaves a foul taste in the mouths of players who know right from wrong. For coaches who covet their players’ respect, ordering the team to deliberately lose can quickly erase years of unblemished service.
Respect quickly evaporated, for example, in an early round of the Winnipeg (Manitoba, Canada) High School Hockey League’s A-Division playoffs in 2011. The Westwood High School Warriors led College Jeanne Sauve, 3-2, late in the third period, when Westwood’s coaches schemed to lose the game by pulling their goalie to let the opponents score. The coaches knew that by losing, the Warriors would draw an easier opponent in the upcoming semifinal round and avoid a faceoff against the league’s regular-season champion. With their net empty, the Warriors gave up the tying and winning goals and lost, 4-3.
The Winnipeg Sun reported that many Warriors players left the ice “visibly distraught” because they knew that their coaches had deliberately thrown the game. “It was brutal,” a Warriors forward told the Sun. “We were embarrassed, and we’re sad we had to put up with it.” With their coach quickly suspended for unethical conduct, Westwood’s players themselves agreed to face the regular-season champion in the semis, the match-up that a victory honestly earned against College Jeanne Sauve would have produced.
“Most of Us Did Not Like the Idea”
Similar coaching shenanigans marred the U.S. Youth Soccer Association Region IV playoffs in Honolulu in June of 2003. With his team ahead 1-0 and about five minutes left to play, the coach of the U-17 De Anza Sharks of Cupertino, California instructed his girls to lose by scoring twice on themselves. Again the strategy was to avoid a strong opponent in the next round. The Sharks lost the game, 2-1.
“Our coach looked at the brackets,” a Sharks player told the Alameda (Calif.) Journal afterwards, “and he felt it would be best if we played a weaker opponent in the second round. He brought up [the idea of deliberately losing] to us before the game. Most of us did not like the idea, but he was our coach and he felt it was the best thing to do.”
The Ethical Compass
Many youth coaches doubtlessly weigh tactics during playoffs and other tournaments, which frequently feature multiple games in a few days, sometimes on only a few hours’ rest. To conserve stamina with the team comfortably ahead, for example, the coach may pace first-stringers and reward substitutes with extra playing time.
The ethical compass points in a different direction, however, when the coach deliberately tries to lose a game. The line between reasonable pacing and deliberately trying to lose may be hazy sometimes, but coaches cross the line when the players themselves figure out that their leaders are scheming to pull a fast one.
The integrity of sports depends on competitors who try their best to win. Angling to lose brings dishonor by denying every competitor the spice that comes from physically and emotionally invigorating competition. The British Association of Coaches points the ethical compass in the right direction: “Sport without fair play is not sport and honours won without fair play can have no real value.”
Only One Bad Deed
Reputation earned over time is the youth coach’s greatest asset. One serious ethical lapse can permanently destroy that asset because, as Supreme Court Justice Benjamin N. Cardozo wrote, reputation “is a plant of tender growth, and its bloom, once lost, is not easily restored.” Or as Benjamin Franklin taught more directly, “It takes many good deeds to build a good reputation, and only one bad one to lose it.”
The Tennessee girls basketball coaches will doubtlessly find it difficult, if not impossible, to recover their reputations, even if their schools permit them to return to the sidelines after serving their suspensions next season. Players and parents may sometimes forgive a devoted coach’s errors of strategy, or even the coach’s lack of knowledge about the finer points of the game. But players and parents may find it difficult to forgive dishonesty that soils the values that drive sports.
The Tennessee high school basketball coaches’ ethical lapse counsels youth coaches against yielding to temptation to throw a tournament game for tactical advantage. We often speak of 20/20 hindsight, but coaches with values also need 20/20 foresight. Integrity is a youth coach’s foundation, and a permanently tattered reputation is too great a price to pay for today’s chance at tainted victory.
[Sources: Oliver O’Connell, Two High School Basketball Teams Suspended For BOTH Trying to Lose the Same Game – With One Player Even Shooting Into Her Own Basket, http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-2969629/We-NOT-champions-Two-girls-high-school-basketball-teams-suspended-trying-lose-game.html (Feb. 25, 2015); Tom Kreager and Mealand Ragland, Riverdale, Smyrna Coaches Suspended for 2015-16 Season, District Says, Daily News Journal (Murfreesboro, Tenn.), Feb. 25, 2015; Ken Wiebe, Swift Hockey Justice, Winnipeg Sun, Mar. 5, 2011, p. S3; Mike McGreehan, Board Takes Action Against Youth Coach, Alameda Journal, Sept. 23, 2003, p. B1]