BRATTLEBORO -- Picture the stereotypical hardline coach, pro or otherwise, and what comes to mind? Most envision some irate individual barking orders to his or her players from the sidelines, always critical and never satisfied, reserving any joyful emotions or compliments for the team until after the game. You know, as to not display signs of compassion or weakness to the opposing side, or their own team for that matter. It’s an image that has long been browbeaten into every sports fan’s psyche.
What’s the big deal, anyway? Even the players act like this towards one another. This is how coaches coach and teams win games. Get over it!
Or so we’ve been led to believe.
The controversy swirling the Miami Dolphins football team has given the act of bullying a new face, allowing it to remain a hotly debated social topic for many, both on and off the field, and in and out of the workplace.
Bullying has always been seen as a kids issue, an experience everyone supposedly goes through while growing up, but won’t later experience as they reach maturity and begin working with other adults who hopefully know the difference between gentle ribbing and harassment.
Not so much anymore.
While allegations continue to fly back and forth as the facts begin to emerge, Jonathan Martin and Richie Incognito have taught us something. The lines for coaches between what some would consider an atmosphere of constructive criticism, or good coaching, and straight up abuse have become blurred.
Players certainly feel the brunt of these internal team conflicts and sometimes choose to remain silent for their own reasons, but coaches also likely feel less empowered now themselves given public outcry. So how far are they still willing to go to push their players to excel without running the risk of dehumanizing them in the process, and at what cost?
Concerning sportsmanship, area high schools all follow a similar "code of ethics" when compared to one another.
Last fall, former UVM athletic director, and BUHS graduate, Rick Farnham spoke to Brattleboro student-athletes about the subject of bullying and hazing. As a director of athletics at UVM, Farnham lived through a hazing incident and has now worked on developing a hazing prevention and student leadership program.
"Mr. Farnham’s message was very powerful as he discussed the fact that bullying or hazing cuts at the very heart of the team experience and what is most purposeful in athletics," said BUHS athletic director Chris Sawyer. "If athletics are about the values of trust, friendships, respect, of having a positive attitude, then where does bullying fit in?"
Brattleboro follows an Athletic Code of Conduct that governs the behaviors of its students with the expectations that the conduct of its athletes promotes good character, according to Sawyer, who also coaches the varsity boys lacrosse team.
"If the concept of team is built on everyone’s contribution to make the team one, the alienating force of hazing or bullying destroys those efforts," he said.
The Vermont Anti-Harassment and Hazing Law also deems that "it is the policy of the state of Vermont that all educational institutions provide safe, orderly, civil and positive learning environments."
Marty Testo, athletic director at Leland and Gray, referred to page 47 of his school’s Student Handbook: "Leland and Gray investigates claims of bullying, cyber-bullying, or harassment when it takes place during school hours, while using school equipment, or has a negative effect on a student’s academic performance."
Annoying or jesting comments among friends with no intent of signicant harm is considered teasing, while name calling, gossiping, taking personal belongings, taunting, unwanted touching, threats of withdrawing friendship, the silent treatment, or exclusion from group all qualify as bullying, and state law provides recourse for qualifying victims.
Teasing is not considered an illegal activity in Vermont, but students and staff are encouraged to confront the harming individual to stop making hurtful comments and explain how it can lead to bullying then hazing, the worst type of harassment that involves physical brutality. To prevent this, teachers are encouraged to address teasing through interactive class activities.
Police may be involved if the harassment continues, the school counselor will provide emotional support to the students involved, and a restorative justice component might also be added depending on the severity of the incident.
In theory then, over time, bullying should be virtually eliminated from our schools, our places of work, and ultimately our high school fields and gymnasiums.
This all seems like wishful thinking, though, because everyone knows it still happens.
"Hinsdale follows the NHIAA Code of Ethics and encourage it for all student-athletes," said Hinsdale athletic director Mike McCosker. "With that being said, we still have seen borderline hazing / bullying take place on teams."
As a result of a case last spring that involved the middle school boys baseball team, McCosker wrote and held a sportsmanship class that ran for a week in which the entire team attended.
Perhaps heading off the problem before it becomes a problem is the answer.
"We would like to be more proactive with the educational piece," said McCosker. "But to be honest, other than letting students know the code, my approach has been more reactionary due to time constraints."
One of the things that McCosker and his colleagues would like to see happen is the implementation of a dedicated time slot at the beginning of each season in which the athletics staff at the school can do more educational outreach.
The main points laid out by New Hampshire’s Interscholastic Athletic Association’s code state that "the purpose of athletics in school programs is to develop and promote the physical, mental, moral, social and emotional well-being of individual participants; to avoid any practice or technique which would endanger the present or future welfare or safety of a participant; to refrain from making disparaging remarks to opponents, officials, coaches, or spectators in any aspect of school athletics..."
Words to live (and play) by.
"We haven’t had any issues or reports of any issues within the athletic program, in recent memory," said Twin Valley athletic director Buddy Hayford. "We had an assembly a few weeks ago, so we do it on a schoolwide basis. I can’t say it doesn’t happen or won’t happen again, but you’re dealing with teenagers. If we did know anything though, we would prevent it."
This is not something to be swept under the rug.
"The students are very well informed," said Hayford, who also coaches boys soccer and girls basketball. "If there was an issue, it’s something that would be dealt with right away. Whether it’s an athlete or not, bullying is just wrong."
What will come of the Dolphins, and how will their culture and the NFL’s change with the times, since change is inevitable at this point? Patriots fans might not care, but how will everyone else be affected? No one is certain, but maybe the attention the Miami team has received in relation to this issue has given area coaches an opportunity to talk to their players about it.
"From the very first team meetings, it’s a must-have conversation," said Sawyer. "I believe that our coaches do a good job of not only setting team expectations on and off the field, but also demonstrating and extending respect to all players."
David Aquino can be reached at email@example.com, or by calling 802-254-2311, ext. 164.