When Coaches Instigate Their Players To Talk Trash
By Doug Abrams
In late October, the Yarmouth Clippers downed the Gray-New Gloucester Patriots, 13-6, in Maine high school varsity football. As Rick Wolff reported on this blog at the time, the game turned out to be the last one for the Patriots coach.
Before the game, several Patriots players told their parents and school officials that the coach had allegedly instructed them to taunt an opponent with “Who’s Your Daddy?” each time they tackled him. The opponent lives in a household headed by two women who are married to each other.
According to the Portland Press Herald, the two women said they were “appreciative and thankful” that some Gray-New Gloucester players and parents informed them beforehand that the coach had singled out their son. No Gray-New Gloucester players were overheard trash talking the opponent on the field, but the coach worked his last game for the team. The school district superintendent did not say afterwards whether the coach was dismissed or whether he resigned, but confirmed that the coach “no longer works for” the district. The district, the superintendent told television station WMTW, “does not tolerate threatening or discriminating behavior.”
This column discusses three harmful consequences that can follow when a youth league or interscholastic coach instigates the team to taunt an opposing player. Instigation can threaten player safety, compromise sportsmanship, and diminish the respect among athletes that brings out the best in sports competition.
Influenced by high-profile trash talkers in the professional ranks, trash talking increasingly infects high school sports and youth leagues in many communities today. For some pro stars, it no longer seems enough just to win; savoring victory also depends on humiliating the opponents. Regardless of what might pass as tolerable or entertaining in the adult professional world, the calculus is different at the youth level, whose athletes are children and adolescents.
Especially in a contact or collision sport such as high school football, a coach’s trash talking can incite dirty play that threatens control on the field and in the stands. No such safety risk marred October’s football game in Maine, but players are impressionable and a coach’s taunting has sometimes led teams to trade cheap shots from the opening whistle.
Pediatric professionals call youth coaches (in the words of Toronto neurosurgeon Charles H. Tator) “the most important individuals for maintaining safety” in the heat of competition. Coaches are the ultimate gatekeepers, a central role that depends on foregoing verbal abuse that most mature adults would find unacceptable coming from their own children.
Sportsmanship and trash talking don’t mix. Youth coaching resembles a game of “follow the leader” because the coach’s conduct heavily influences the team’s tone, for better or worse. Youth coaches represent themselves, their families, their schools, and their communities in every game. Trash talking neutralizes the values that coaches should teach, values that will outlast anything the coach teaches about the fundamentals and skills of the game.
Safety and sportsmanship depend on Respect, a pillar that a youth coach’s trash talking shatters. Coaches encourage respect for the game, for the family, and for opponents by teaching players to relish victory as reward enough, without descent into taunting or trash talking. And by teaching that targeting an opponent or the opponent’s family because of race, creed, color, religion, disability, sexual orientation, or other distinguishing characteristic is off-limits.
The players’ respect for the coach may also hang in the balance because, like most people, coaches get what they give. Players are unlikely to respect a coach for long simply because the coach carries a clipboard or wears a whistle. The coach must earn the players’ respect, not only by teaching skills and strategies, but also by demonstrating sound values through words and deeds.
Media reports indicate that when the Gray-New Gloucester coach urged the team to target the opponent who has two same-sex parents, several players (and their parents) summoned their own values by notifying the target family, reporting the coach to school authorities, and disregarding his instruction during the game.
Respect and Strength
Maintaining respect for game, family, and opponents signals strength, not softness. Respect does not diminish the desire to win, and indeed can stimulate that desire. At the ceremony enshrining him in the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown in 2005, Ryne Sandberg explained why.
“[I]f there was a single reason I am here today,” the Chicago Cubs star told the audience, “it is because of one word – respect.” “I was in awe every time I walked on to the field,” he explained. “That’s respect. I was taught you never, ever disrespect your opponent or your teammates or your organization or your manager and never ever your uniform. . . . I played [the game] right because that’s what you’re supposed to do – play it right and with respect.
Sandberg’s abiding respect strengthened his desire to win and sustained his competitive, but clean, play throughout his 16-year big league career. He would not have put up Hall of Fame numbers if maintaining respect had softened his passion for winning.
Conclusion: Taking a Near Hit
Sportsmanship and respect are the foundations of the good that happens in the game, and disrespect inevitably stains the game. Striving to win remains central to high school varsity competition, but sportsmanship and respect nearly took a hit in Maine high school football late in October, allegedly at a coach’s instigation. More than 40 years ago, the British Association of National Coaches set the ethical compass applicable to youth league and interscholastic competition:
“Sport without fair play is not sport, and honours won without fair play can have no real value.”
Sources: Rick Wolff, HS Varsity Football Coach Dismissed for Encouraging Taunting of Opposing Player, http://www.askcoachwolff.com/2017/10/20/abusive-coaches-hs-varsity-football-coach-dismissed-encouraging-taunting-opposing-player/ (Oct. 20, 2017); Mike Lowe, Gray-New Gloucester Coach Resigns; Allegedly Told Players To Taunt Opponent, Portland (Me.) Press Herald (Oct. 20, 2017); Seth Koenig, Maine High School Football Coach Canned After Claims of “Hate-Laden” Taunts, Bangor (Me.) Daily News, Oct. 19, 2017; Charles H. Tator et al., Spinal Injuries in Canadian Ice Hockey: An Update to 2005, 19 Clinical J. Sport Med. 451, 455 (2009).