After the Sandusky and Bernie Fine scandals, I saw Ice-T @FINALLEVEL on Twitter. He mentioned something about how some men who are really good coaches, may not want to coach out of fear of false accusations by kids or parents. I talked about it with a few of my friends. Fundamentally they agreed with Ice-T. Nobody was defending Sandusky or Fine. However nobody could argue the future potential negative fallout from well intended gestures, by innocent people trying to help their community.
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Sandusky appears to have hurt more than children. He molested the sacred American institution of coaching itself. An instant cloud of suspicion can now haunt many men and women of integrity. This has to be fixed.
Show me wax on, wax off
When people think of coaches, many images come to mind. In the new Sherlock Holmes 2 , the good detective coaches his trusty assistant Holmes through complex life situations. The “Italian Stallion” Rocky Balboa had Mickey to put more fear and respect into Rocky than his opponents ever could. The Karate Kid’s Mr. Miyagi showed Daniel that not all things we’re what they seem on the surface. The kids in Coach Carter learned the importance of living strong on and off the basketball court. Chess icon Josh Waitzkin had Vinnie (played by Laurence Fishburne) in Washington Square Park to help him search for Bobby Fischer. Behind every classic movie coach, there are millions of real coaches who sacrifice themselves to help the youth. More importantly, they are helping the child discover themselves on an authentic level.
A coach is defined as “One who instructs or trains; especially one who instructs players in the fundamentals in a competitive sport and directs team strategy.” This role is not something you merely do, its a calling. Most coaches do what they do for little to no money. The majority of coaches do it solely for the love of the sport or art. They do it in hopes of passing on something to someone else so that person might be truly enriched from learning it.
Being a coach is an honor, not a right. Currently, I coach adults privately in Brazilian Jiu Jitsu fundamentals. I also coach kids in the elementary aspects of chess. Before that, I coached youth soccer for five years. Our teams always did well and I always had solid relationships with the kids and the parents on the team. I truly hope more good people in Black communities start coaching more consistently in all sports. The kids need good role models. If you know a sport or art well and there is an organization that coaches in your area, I deeply encourage you to contribute. If there is no organization for the sport you specialize in, consider founding one.
However, it is important that coaches and parents have a set of expectations about appropriate conduct and etiquette on and off the court/field. Here are a few that I live by. I hope this gives you a baseline of ideas to work from if you are a coach. If you are a parent, this is a checklist that should make you more aware. If you see coaches violating any of the things below, its not proof of any wrong doing. But you should talk to the coach directly, and instruct your child to avoid any of these kinds of situations as much as possible.
There are exceptions to every rule. But if you follow the ones I have listed below, I believe it will build good relationships and cuts off room for unneeded suspicion and gossip.
1. Know your role
Understand that you are their coach and coach only their coach. You are not their dad, uncle, big brother etc. Your only purpose for contacting them off the court/field should be specific to things related to practice or games. That’s it. Anything else you make it out to be is only in your mind.
In a time where there are a lot more single mothers especially, at times well intended mothers can blur the lines of appropriate interaction. Out of a subconscious desire to have their children around positive men they may quietly, or openly encourage you to spend more time with the kid. Keep your coaching goals at the front of the line and don’t let a desire to save the world have you over extending yourself. You are the coach, and that’s all.
2. Don’t kid yourself
When I was in high school, as soon as we hit the showers all of the grown men went to the coaches offices. Grown men should not make a habit of being around kids in the shower. That’s a huge red flag. When its time for the kids to change or shower- be gone.
3. Respect the line and never cross It
When congratulating a kid for a job well done I have 5 specific ways of showing affection: hand shake, high five, pound, pat the left shoulder, pat the head. That’s it. Any coach making a habit of extended hugging or butt swatting as they come on or off the field etc., comes off as bizarre.
4. Clean lines of communication
You should never be talking to the kid, calling the kid, texting, or emailing the kid without the parents knowledge. I made it a point to email parents only as a rule if anything changed in game schedules or practice times. The only exception to that might be is if you randomly see the kid at the mall or some other public setting and the parent is not around. Be sure to follow up with the parent directly and say “I saw Jimmy at the mall earlier. I let him know the Saturday game is cancelled.” Additionally, the parents should always have the most current contact information for you and you should respond to the parents ASAP each time they reach out.
5. No Sleepovers, ever!
This should actually be number one: NO TEAM SLEEPOVERS EVER. If a man does not have kids, he does not need 15 kids sleeping over at his spot. If you do have kids, its still weird. I think this is mostly a suburban phenomenon that’s billed as a “motivational” thing. In all my years of coaching, I have never had team sleep overs and yet some how my teams stayed undefeated for years. Not having them has never affected team morale or connectivity. Parents, if your coach is big on sleepovers it does not mean he’s a Sandusky type- but you must be aware and I suggest you respectfully decline. Obviously if the team travels, that can be a bit different. Make sure that you do all you can to go and chaperon (no matter who else you trust might be going). It is also important that you have a clear itinerary of pick up and drop off times so there is no confusion.
Some of these things may seem a little too rigid for a few of you. That may be the case. Understand that this list was written by a coach and a parent. Suspicion of inappropriate behavior with a child is not something most people recover from. To avoid it, you as a coach must have a proactive standard of conduct for yourself that is proof of your integrity. Failure to do so can truly ruin your reputation. Consider your reputation priceless. Consider the minds and hearts of children beyond priceless and everything will work itself out. What kind of steps do you think we can implement to stop more Jerry Sandusky tragedies? Post your thoughts below.