A Culture that the Realm of Athletics and Coaching May Unknowingly Contribute To!
By: Rick Farnham, Retired AD – University of Vermont
Athletics have always professed that “sports build character,” but it is time to stop the assumption and talk about how we make it happen considering occurrences across the nation on our campuses. Athletic administrators across the country, who wake up and do not find the latest episode of inappropriate behavior by their own student-athletes on the front pages of the sports section or on social media, consider themselves fortunate! Do not wait until it happens, start to take notice of some of the practices being adhered to in your own programs that may be an unconscious factor in contributing to this culture of hazing activities among our student-athletes.
There are factors prevalent in your school and on your teams that even coaches unknowingly contribute to what may eventually become a devastating hazing event in which someone is harmed physically or mentally humiliated!
“Hazing permeates diverse settings throughout our society (e.g. social clubs, athletics, the military, the workplace, various youth groups, etc.); “it is embedded and reflective of pervasive cultural norms, making it difficult to eradicate. Hazing has gained acceptance among a number of students in athletics often because of their attitude toward what they believe is team building and finding pleasure in putting each other in humiliating situations without any perspective of resultant consequences.” Too many institutions become aware of this after the fact in addressing a hazing incident.
Something we have come to learn and understand more clearly in our profession of coaching is that:
Athletics sometimes inadvertently contributes to the incubation of the idea that some hazing stems from new team members being treated unequally by the coaching staff who mean well and subsequently by the upper-class athletes! This is usually the norm in most circumstances! The surprising finding is that such treatment is often at the hands of the unsuspecting athletic personnel and the climate and environment that they are trying to create, just the opposite of their intentions!
It is relatively easy to see why this may happen in athletics and it provides an illustration that coaches unknowingly may be contributors toward the situation. In competitive sport, it is the coach who determines and positions those who play more significant roles on the team and hopefully they base it on skill level, attitude, and contribution to the whole. Simply stated, coaches attempt to put the best players forward as they have earned their position through the demonstration of their talent in front of everyone! It needs to be apparent to all team members that these athletes proved themselves athletically! Hence it follows that athletics clearly says to its participants:
“Prove your talent, work ethic, and attitude in front of everyone, and you will play!” Then it follows that the veteran student-athletes readily accept the idea that they perpetrate onto the newest members that indicates their thinking and says, you need to “Prove your desire to be socially accepted by us as a member of this team, regardless of your talent!”
What follows is often the meaningless participation in the nonsense of hazing activities that make the newer athletes humbly demonstrate a sacrifice of their values. Yet, such participation contributes nothing to the athlete’s ability to perform in their sport’s venues.
Why is it that students believe this to be an acceptable practice? It is partly their belief that these activities create togetherness or establish a team hierarchy for decision-making but one day they will understand the fallacy of their thinking! What is happening is that the newer students believe that:
“The consequences of participating in hazing activities are far less than being socially unaccepted by the rest of the team!”
It has become the responsibility of everyone in the administration of athletics to dispel this attitude through relevant discussions with coaches, student-athletes, and subsequent educational programming.
When administrators and coaches initiate these concepts to their teams, it may be one of the contributing factors in hazing.
If a coach demonstrates distinct differences among older and new athletes by:
dressing them in different practice gear at the start of the training sessions
providing privileges to veterans such as preferential privileges for daily issues
more favorable taping schedule times for veteran players
up front or rear seating arrangements on buses
differences in the quality of equipment he/she provides
assigning custodial duties to only the newest members
giving each new player a derogatory nick-name
making only new players responsible for picking up equipment
provides different practice gear or even different game jerseys
Then, they contribute to the concept and the idea that new members are different and if the coach can treat them differently, your upperclassmen may follow suit!
Even the athletic world’s terminology subtlety contributes to this same idea of acceptable differences with terms such as rookies, newbies, benchwarmers, starters, and scout and taxi squad, scrubs, and subs instead of teammates! Should a sixth man in basketball that plays 30 of 40 minutes be considered a sub?
Why is it we only introduce the starters on the team at competitive events? Are the other members less important? Most coaches would say, “absolutely not” but the unintentional practice sends another message that athletes have perceived over the years, that everyone is not equal. We know talent and skill are not always equal, but everyone is always deserving of respect and their dignity! We should admire all those who make the sacrifices demanded of daily practice routines, conditioning, and hard work, all season long. They deserve to be considered equal contributors and worthy of the distinction of being dignified not humiliated.
From day one, the coach must emphatically demonstrate equality among the athletes, and he/she must treat each the same so that they clearly understand that they will be accepted based upon their work ethic, attitude, and ability to perform! The newest members of any team and organization regardless of their role, must be made to feel their worth and know that their contributions will be significant to the overall success of the group. They also must know that they are truly empowered by the coaching staff and administrators to ‘walk’ away from anyone’s attempt to lure them into submission of these humiliating and too often dangerous ‘initiation practices’ or meaningless ‘traditions’!
Coaches, if you don’t extend total respect to the new players, don’t expect the veterans on the team to act differently. Every coach can do so by specifically stating these facts on day one of the first practice with his or her arms around the new players, introducing them as the future of his/her program!
This may be one of the initiatives you can take to help change the culture around our teams in athletics and help put some quality back in the ‘character’ that athletics build!