Disciplining athletes carries educational values

One of the most invigorating and purposeful moments in a football, soccer, volleyball, or cross country coach’s annual cycle of training is that first day in mid-August, when athletes report to pre-season. The fruits of hard labor in recruiting and retaining a mix of star-quality and mainstay athletes potentially creates a ripe harvest for a bountiful season. Right now, it’s happening all over the country. Preseasons are winding down and students are filing into the classrooms for the official start of another school year.

Even sweeter for a coach than the anticipation of that first day of preseason is the contact from an alumni player who seems to really care about the years they suited up in a uniform. After close to 20 years away from action, a former player asked if their coach remembered the time they were kicked out of the gym. While the answer was “no,” the former player sheepishly admitted to some of the biggest lessons learned from being disciplined had carried into their career as a county prosecutor. There is hardly a sentiment to explain the satisfaction in knowing perhaps a few players matured to appreciate a coach who made it apparent that life lessons through team sport participation are sometimes more important than the scoreboard.

On that initial preseason reporting day, however, there are no losses on the schedule, no aches or pains or new injuries, and normally no team drama. The expectations for a successful season are generally through the roof and the onset of enthusiasm is as contagious as Bieber Fever in a room full of pre-teen girls.

Pre-season is hard. It is supposed to be hard. It is supposed to weed out the players who failed to condition to team standards and benefit those who had. Preseason is about bonding and preparing. Coaches are transformed into highly-skilled architects to design effective training regimens that are the most likely to produce victors.

On occasion, the coach finds a wrench thrown into the mix and is forced to navigate a different path to preparation. Athletes, especially the star or marquee athletes expected to carry a huge load during the season, can create a nightmare for their coach when their poor decisions off the field or court result in team disciplinary action.

There are always highly publicized conduct-related disciplinary measures reported in the news, but predominately (or thankfully), the media attention is almost exclusively on violations in NCAA Division I football programs. Just last week Ohio State Coach Urban Meyer suspended two starters for the season opener vs. Buffalo on the heels of suspending a third starter earlier in the summer. In June, Coach James Franklin dismissed four Vanderbilt players after learning of their alleged participation in sex crimes.

There are definitely exceptions to the focused publicity on suspended or dismissed football players, but the cases are extreme. The Duke lacrosse scandal for alleged gang rape and the murder of Yeardley Love by a Virginia lacrosse player are examples. A Boston College female soccer player suspended last season after she posted tweets about Jerry Sandusky and the Penn State scandal made regional news.

The fact remains that the countess of conduct related suspensions and dismissals every year never hit the papers or the ESPN highlight reels. In the high school ranks, athletes are protected as minors under the age of 18. In the thousands of colleges supporting athletic teams in America, public interest isn’t as high when a volleyball player, cross country runner, or Division III football player is suspended or dismissed.

Nevertheless, there are lessons to learn when Urban Meyer disciplines a player even though judicial charges may be dropped. Guilt by association, for instance, is an interesting concept. One of the strains of emotional maturity centers on accepting enforcement of policy over public opinion of appropriate disciplinary action whereby punishment doesn’t always seem to fit the crime.

There is a bigger picture in enforcing behavior expectations of an athlete who represents his or her team, school, and family 24/7 in their lives. There should be little or zero distinction between in-season and out-of-season conduct expectations. Underage consumption is one of those behavior problems that catch up to too many high school and college athletes. Suggesting the ability to vote or die for our country in the military but being unable to consume an alcoholic beverage doesn’t hold up a whole lot in a court of law. Unfortunately, actions have consequences that spill over to athletics when poor decisions come into play.

The two universities and all the high schools in and around Tiffin have had their fair share of conduct-related incidences resulting in key players being forced to sit on the sidelines as a result of one decision that impacted their entire athletic career. While certainly every penalty doesn’t fit the crime, it doesn’t change the reality of the games and contests that go on despite a player or two who aren’t in uniform. A coach is obligated to support administrative policy regardless of a personal opinion.

These are hard lessons for someone 16 or even 20-years-old, but hopefully after the cleats and kneepads have long been discarded, a few athletes will continue a relationship with their coach and reflect on the moment they came to truly understood that sometimes there are events and decisions in life that are much more important than a game score.

Stay tuned next month for more interesting and though provoking sport stories from around the globe to our small community in northwest Ohio.

Bonnie Tiell is the associate professor of sports management at Tiffin University.