Monday, June 18, 2012
We are what we learn. So what we teach our children becomes an essential part of their development, character and behaviors. Based on some of the remarks and conduct of players in the professional ranks and fans watching them play, we’ve forgotten that we can be passionate while still being polite. Don’t even get me started on political discourse, which has degenerated into name calling and smear attacks. I would be happy just to see some good manners on the sidelines, on the pitch and in the stands of a soccer game. Who knows, it might transfer into other areas of life.
Last week, during a Euro Cup match against Croatia, Mario Balotelli, who is of Ghanaian descent, was allegedly subject to racial abuse. Monkey noises were heard coming from Croatian fans, and a banana had to be removed from the pitch. This follows a similar allegation from an earlier game against Spain. These charges are being investigated by UEFA, but are not isolated. Theodor Gebre Selassie,who is Ethopian but a Czechoslovakian national, was racially heckled by Russian fans during a match. Italian national team forward Antonio Cassano in a press conference stated that he hoped there were no gays on the Italian team, only to apologize for his remarks after a backlash in the press. And John Terry is due to stand trial in July for a racially charged comment he made to Anton Ferdinand of Queens Park Rangers. Until the issue is resolved, Terry has been stripped of his captaincy of the England National team.
All of these fans and players were once children who obviously didn’t learn the lesson of "if you don’t have something nice to say, then don’t say anything at all." Prejudice and homophobia are ideas we can hope to eradicate, but everyone has deeply held personal beliefs, which are often dictated by a particular experience or religion. Nevertheless, we shouldn’t be expressing those thoughts as attacks on another person. Can you imagine someone making monkey noises on the sidelines of a youth game? We all recognize that it would be both inappropriate and possibly illegal. Yet my sons, who are biracial, can attest to the huge amount of racial slurs they have endured on the soccer field beginning as early as eight years old. These come from their peers, who either learned them on the knees of their parents, or didn’t learn that they shouldn’t express them or both. No matter our private opinions, we all know that expressing racial or sexual attacks isn’t proper.
There’s an etiquette we can all adhere to which provides for civility on the field and in the stands. Attacking players for their race, religion, sexual orientation or gender is outside the boundaries of the game. If someone wants to get inside a player’s head by calling into question his playing ability, his focus or his temperament, then that’s fair. Trash talking has become an important part of strategy. However, it should never stray into attacks on personal beliefs or on characteristics someone is born with. As parents we need to teach our children both self-control and decorum. This isn’t about stifling First Amendment rights. It’s about recognizing that exercising those rights requires some responsibility to do so at the right time and place.
Last week my grandson played a baseball game during which the opposing team began to taunt the pitcher mercilessly. This wasn’t just normal, occasional razzing about not being able to pitch a strike or being blind. This became very personal. Yet the coaches and the parents did nothing to curb and contain the behavior. In fact they seemed to relish it, even encouraging it. They say victory is the best revenge. So my grandson’s coach, after first trying to appeal to the opposing coaches and the referees, decided to play some small ball and generate as many runs as possible. They won 25-4 after a shortened game. What saddens me most about this experience is that the adults, who should have stepped up and been leaders, failed their responsibility. The umpires should have stopped it, and if it didn’t stop, should have issued sanctions. But everyone seemed to either feed into it or ignore it. That poor kid standing all alone on the pitcher’s mound had to endure it. And for what? It didn’t help the team win. It didn’t make the team better people. It didn’t make the night a positive memory for anyone. Someone should have stepped up and been mature enough to call a halt to the behaviors.
Another frustration for me is when I hear parents swearing on the sidelines. As the kids get older they begin to swear during the game feeling vindicated by their own parents’ behavior. We can only solve the problem if the kids learn early on that swearing doesn’t have a place on the soccer pitch. They can learn this by observing their parents’ decorum on the sidelines. I used to work in the world of theater, both as a production manager and a stage manager. Swearing is part and parcel of any rehearsal or evening performance. I have to really work not to swear, and I’m not always successful. My husband has never sworn in his life, which I find both wonderful and abnormal. So he’s not any problem. Yet for most of us, putting a sock in it can prove difficult, especially as frustrations grow during a difficult game. But we owe it to our kids not to pollute the atmosphere or their brains. Yes they’ll hear swear words. Even PG movies contain them. Commercial TV now leaves very little to the imagination as they bleep out words we never would have heard on their channels ten years ago. But letting our kids know that you have the self-control not to blurt them out, will help them develop their own self-control. We won’t get perfection, but just lowering the level of ugly language and raising the level of civility would help.
I really charge referees and coaches with a huge responsibility in this area. When Bryce and Robbie would complain to the refs about racial language, most refs shrugged it off. I’m sure they feel they have enough to handle with fouls, sideline calls and keeping up with the play, but maintaining a diplomatic game can help insure fewer problems in other areas. Someone enduring racial or sexual taunts throughout the game may lash out, or someone who is allowed to express those taunts may feel entitled to add physical violence. Coaches need to have a zero tolerance for any racial or other slurs. They need to make that zero tolerance clearly known and enforce it. Parents need to openly tell their players that they can’t use derogatory language on or off the field. Clubs should likewise support their coaches by issuing a written policy concerning prejudicial language.
Years ago, kids actually went to classes to learn etiquette. They then exercised that etiquette at a cotillion. We need to reinforce some of those proper manners for our soccer players. It’s not as old school as you might think. Learning to deal with one another with some rules of social engagement can’t be all that bad if it helps us to stay civil and controlled. We have the chance to help the up-and-coming generations of players and fans understand how to immerse themselves passionately in a game without resorting to personal attacks, racism or swearing. Miss Manners would be so delighted!