Game-Fixing and Youth Coaching Ethics
By Doug Abrams
Under the headline, “Two Youth Teams Apparently Fixed a Match At a Tournament,” Fox Soccer writer Alex Dowd described a U-18 girls game played on July 28 at the US Youth Soccer National Championships in Frisco, Texas. He reported that the two teams, the Ambassadors FC and the Carlsbad Elite, each needed only a tie to advance to the semifinals as the first- and second-place finishers in their group play bracket. The game ended in a scoreless tie, both teams advanced, and another team was eliminated.
With the help of game video posted online, Dowd described the game: “Essentially they’re just rolling the ball back and forth, not even pretending to compete. With the ignoble 0-0 result in the books, both teams collected the point needed to advance to the semifinals. That certainly looks like match fixing, through and through.”
Headlines and stories in other media outlets were similarly harsh on the two teams. USA TODAY (“Two Youth Teams Accused of Deliberately Tanking After Playing Terrible Soccer Game”) said that “it looked like neither side was trying to score or do much of anything.” GotSoccer (“Controversy Dogs U18 Girls Semifinals at US Youth Soccer National Championships”) described the “somnolent 0-0 draw” and likened the contest to “a morality play in shin pads.”
In statements afterwards, the two head coaches denied match-fixing charges. According to TopDrawSoccer, the Ambassadors’ coach said that “Both teams were through pretty much, so there was nothing to play for. Earlier in the day, there had been 18 people collapsed due to the heat.” His Carlsbad counterpart said that “Playing a low pressure style was in our best interest looking ahead to the semi-final to help preserve our players physically for the next match, having already played two 90 minute games in the extreme heat.”
“Disrespectful to the Game”
US Youth Soccer issued a statement after its National Championship Series Committee met with both teams and conducted a thorough investigation of the evidence presented. The committee found insufficient evidence of collusion, but it determined that the teams were “disrespectful to the game, the competition and US Youth Soccer.” The disrespect had “compromised” the “integrity” of the championship series and its “ideals . . . of fair play and sportsmanship.”
The committee imposed fines and disciplinary action on both teams, and US Youth Soccer said that it would conduct further investigation to determine whether “the actions of the coaches were adverse to the best interests of soccer or US Youth Soccer.”
“Honors Won Without Fair Play”
This column is not about one sport or one national championship series, but about what can happen when temptation rears its head during tournaments in various youth sports at every age and experience level. The coaches may be paid, or they may be volunteers. The games may take place in community youth leagues, travel team play, or interscholastic leagues.
Regardless of the rights and wrongs arising from last month’s soccer game, reports periodically surface of youth coaches who seek tactical advantage from throwing games or manipulating scores in national, state, and local tournaments. These reports not only test youth coaching ethics; they can also threaten the future credibility of the coaches themselves, including coaches with otherwise unblemished records.
Many youth coaches doubtlessly weigh tactics during 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 or reward substitutes with extra playing time earned during the season.
The ethical compass points in a different direction, however, when the coach deliberately tries to lose a game or otherwise to jockey for advantageous placement in a later round. The line between reasonable pacing and deliberately trying to manipulate outcomes may sometimes be hazy, but coaches cross the line when the players themselves figure out that their leaders are scheming to pull a fast one.
US Youth Soccer is right that in national tournaments and local community play alike, the integrity of sports depends on competitors who try their best to win. Angling to lose or tie disrespects the game by denying players the fruits of athletic competition. The British Association of Coaches points the compass in the right direction: “Sport without fair play is not sport, and honours won without fair play can have no real value.”
‘We Were Embarrassed”
One element evidently absent from reports of the Ambassadors-Carlsbad game – but important to Rick Wolff’s listeners — is player disgust at coaching shenanigans. Reported efforts at match-fixing frequently draw immediate negative reaction from youngsters who know right from wrong. Even where the effort appears initially successful, the coach may lose in the long run because few people respect ethically challenged people for very long.
Players and parents may forgive a coach’s errors of strategy, or the coach’s lack of knowledge about the finer points of the game. But players or parents may find it difficult to forgive sharp practice that soils the values that drive sports and leaves a bad taste in people’s mouths. Youth coaching depends on credibility, and credibility depends on more than X’s, O’s, and scoreboards.
A few years ago, for example, respect and credibility evaporated quickly in an early round of the Winnipeg (Manitoba, Canada) High School Hockey League’s A-Division playoffs. 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 yielded 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.” I was a youth hockey coach for many years, and I would never have wanted any of my players to feel that way about me.
Reputation earned over time is the youth coach’s greatest asset. Benjamin Franklin described the impact of even one ethical lapse: “It takes many good deeds to build a good reputation, and only one bad one to lose it.”
Coaches who cut ethical corners seeking to lose or to manipulate outcomes may find it difficult, if not impossible, to recover their reputations, even if their schools or associations permit them to return to return to the sidelines. The Internet makes the difficulty or impossibility even greater today than ever before. The Ambassadors and Carlsbad coaches attracted national media attention because the game took place during a prominent national championship series. But even in a local weekend or holiday tournament, complaints about a named coach’s ethical lapse may find their way into the local press or blog postings that describe the game itself or parental or player misgivings.
The stain can be permanent, awaiting simple Internet word searches for the coach’s name. Permanence can be a serious consequence for a coach who wishes future coaching assignments or who seeks the respect from youngsters on future teams. Or for a coach whose reputation in the community might be sullied by tanking a game played by children and adolescents.
The prospect of permanently tattered respect and reputation is too great a price to pay for today’s gamble at a tainted outcome.
Sources: Alex Dowd, Two Youth Teams Apparently Fixed a Match At a Tournament, http://www.foxnews.com/sports/2016/07/29/two-youth-teams-apparently-fixed-match-at-tournament.html (July 29, 2016); Charles Curtis, Two Youth Teams Accused of Deliberately Tanking After Playing Terrible Soccer Game, USA TODAY, http://ftw.usatoday.com/2016/07/us-youth-soccer-national-championship-tanking-accusations (July 30, 2016); Peter Nolan, Controversy Dogs U18 Girls Semifinals at US Youth Soccer National Championships, http://blogs.gotsoccer.com/?p=17822 (July 30, 2016); Will Parchman, Watch Two Teams Sit On a Match to Advance in a Youth Tournament, http://www.topdrawersoccer.com/the91stminute/2016/07/watch-two-teams-siton-a-match-to-advance-in-a-youth-tournament/ (July 29, 2016); US Youth Soccer Statement on Under-18 Girls Ambassadors vs. Carlsbad Game, http://www.usyouthsoccer.org/us_youth_soccer_statement_on_under-18_girls_ambassadors_vs_carlsbad_game/ (July 30, 2016); Ken Wiebe, Swift Hockey Justice, Winnipeg Sun, Mar. 5, 2011, p. S3.