Monday, March 02, 2015
While fun should be the overriding factor in any youth sport, moral dilemmas seem to sneak their way in. Take the case of two Tennessee girls’ high school basketball teams. Their game last week was meant to determine where they would be ranked for the Regional bracket. The loser of the game would ironically get the easier slot while the winner would have to face the regional powerhouse team. Therefore, with no subtlety whatsoever, Riverdale and Smyrna did whatever they could to throw the game. They purposely missed free throws, refused to cross the center line begging for a penalty, stood in the lane and even taunted the refs that they had violated the 3 second rule, refrained from throwing the ball inbounds within the allotted time, and even, finally, resorted to trying to score in the opponent’s basket. The referees had enough, reprimanded the coaches, and the two teams got more than they bargained for. Both were eliminated from postseason competition, put on probation for next year’s season, and fined $1,500 each. Incidentally, Smyrna eventually won showing they were more inept in losing on purpose.
I wrote about a soccer team AS Adema (ASA) defeating Stade Olympique L’Emyme (SOE) 149 – 0 without ever scoring a goal. SOE sent a ball into their own goal every 40 seconds for the entire 90 minutes in protest of a referee call in their previous game. Now that’s a team that knows how to lose! I can attest to my own children being part of a conspiracy to throw a game. If the team we were playing won with enough goals, it would eliminate a team we didn’t want to meet in the playoffs. We were assured of getting into the finals win or lose, so the coaches decided to create the best situation for us by losing the game and ensuring that our opponents scored at least three goals more than we did. I wasn’t aware of the duplicity but did note our team seemed off their game, not clearing the ball, making poor passes, and missing shots. As I bemoaned their lapses, a parent leaned over and whispered, “They’re doing it on purpose.” I was shocked. First, I never thought that losing could be a positive, but more importantly I never thought my child would be complicit in such a conspiracy. I wondered what went through his mind as the coach encouraged them to lose, but “lose skillfully.” Playing on the other side of the looking glass, was he confused, angry, happy, conflicted? He was 14 at the time, right on that cusp of being an adult but still having the insecurity of a child. Had he been convinced that this wasn’t cheating? Was he comfortable participating? Was he craving guidance he couldn’t get? I felt totally helpless as I watched the spectacle unfold in front of me.
The opponents won, our chief rivals were eliminated, and we went on to win the tournament, an outcome that might have happened without the duplicity. The results were overshadowed by my discomfort. There was no way I could cheer the victory because I couldn’t support the means which justified the ends. When I talked to Robbie, he was confused. As he put it, “I had to do what the coaches said,” which I think perfectly encapsulates the problem. How does a child question an authority figure he trusts to be his best advocate as a moral protector? Surprisingly, the parents were divided. While some were as disturbed as I was, there were those who felt all’s fair. They didn’t see the coaches’ plan as unethical, after all the guidelines didn’t forbid the throwing of a game and actually allowed for it. When we tried to make the argument about the integrity and spirit of the game, it fell on deaf ears. Those qualities didn’t seem to outweigh winning.
My concern was and is the message we are sending our children in scenarios like this. I really worry about asking kids to do something they have been taught is immoral – cheating – when those asking wield tremendous power. How can a child stand up to an authority figure in those circumstances? I’m concerned that the coaches took it upon themselves to throw the game without asking the parents. That type of decision goes beyond the normal purview of any coach. It encroaches on a parent’s role in their children’s upbringing. A discussion of what the coaches wanted to do would have been preferable to a unilateral decision without my input. I hated that Robbie was left to deal with this quandary on his own without the ability to get some moral guidance and to understand my opinion on the circumstances. If the team decided it was the best choice, I might have gone along, but at least Robbie would have heard my voice and understood how I viewed the situation. He would have had a context for the decision and an anchor for discussion. Instead he had to flail under the coaching edicts, be loyal to his team, and go against what he had been taught throughout his life. Tough spot for a kid.
While many players might not face such a looming moral dilemma, small ones crop up all the time. A recreation team doctors registration materials to get better kids on the squad, an accusation leveled at and proven for the team that won the Little League World Series this year. Altering birth certificates to have older, more skilled kids on a team seems to be a common offense. Teaching and encouraging kids to “dive” constitutes an ethical quandary for everyone involved. Coaches who make criticism personal rather than constructive cross an ethical boundary. Rather than saying, “Your bad dribbling cost us the game” coaches should say, “Since our dribbling hurt us this game let’s concentrate on it next practice.” We get faced with ethical questions at nearly every game. Do we stand by as people, whether they be coaches, parents, players, or officials, use profane language? Should a player admit to a hand ball in the box? Would we be silent if a coach used an ineligible player because the officials didn’t know? How would we react to our team being encourage to play roughly? Where is the ethical line we draw on the pitch?
These not easy questions. There are pressures from all sides that determine our responses. Our child plays in a community of parents and friends. Taking a moral stand could jeopardize their position, not to mention ours. On the other hand, not stepping up sends a message of approval for behaviors which we, our teachers, our religious guides, and our civic leaders have been telling our children aren’t acceptable. I wonder how the parents of those basketball players felt. I wonder if any were conflicted about what was happening or if were they all in agreement. Clearly the athletic governing body thought their performance was not in the spirit of the competition. They cited the teams under the rule which states: “An unsporting foul is a noncontact technical foul which consists of unfair, unethical, dishonorable conduct or any other behavior not in accordance with the spirit of play.” What a wonderful, all-encompassing rule. Unfortunately, no one had read the rules prior to proceeding with their plan or they would have seen immediately how outside of the boundaries of ethical play they were travelling. I worry that those involved, especially the girls, will focus too much on the sanctions and not enough on their culpability in tarnishing the good name of youth sports. I hope the parents can see the wrong-headed-ness of the actions and use this as a significant teachable moment. Interestingly, the coaches argued that only they should receive punishment and that the girls should continue to compete in the playoffs without the coaches’ assistance. The athletic association refused, stating that the girls were old enough to understand the ethics of their actions.
I do agree with the association, but I also know how powerful the authority of a coach can be. If a coach tells a player to do something that is against her nature, it’s difficult to refuse when she has the coach, her teammates, and her school’s status to be considered. I don’t know if the strategy of the play was discussed in the locker room completely, if the coaches asked the girls’ opinions on doing what they did, if the teams colluded in any way, and if the parents were consulted beforehand. It’s difficult to know how any teenager might have reacted in those circumstances without support. If everyone was in agreement, how could one or two stand against them? As we run up against these dilemmas, all we can do is deal with each one separately. In my case, I asked Robbie what he thought about the decision his coaches made. He expressed how uncomfortable he was and how uncomfortable his teammates were, but that they all felt powerless to refuse to go along. I wish they could have contacted us parents somehow in order to get perspective and support. I felt badly that he was left to wage his inner battle alone. On the other hand, I know that it gave him strength in later battles, including facing up to a racist coach. So every dilemma may not be resolved on the right side of the line, but it can give us the ability to push for the right next time.