Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Team Hazing, Respect and Sports

The Andover High School boys’ basketball team began their season this week under a cloud of public scrutiny resulting from allegations about team hazing that occurred this summer while the team was attending a privately operated sleep-away basketball camp.

According to news accounts, two older players initiated a disgusting “game” with younger players in which the loser had to eat an Oreo cookie covered in what the news article delicately described as “bodily fluids.”

The incident is being investigated by school officials and the police. Hazing is illegal in Massachusetts. Those convicted of hazing face up to a year in jail and a $3,000 fine. Anyone who witnesses hazing but does not report it faces a $1,000 fine. The Andover boys’ coach claimed, through his lawyer, that he reported the incident as soon as it came to his attention in mid-November.

Despite school anti-hazing policies and even state laws prohibiting hazing, high school and college athletes, both male and female, continue to participate in these degrading and often dangerous activities. In the name of “team building” and “initiating new team members” many athletes and some coaches fail to see the harm in this enduring sports ritual. Every so often, when a death occurs as a result of hazing, as was the case recently with the Florida A & M marching band, we pay attention for a minute.

Hazing is still an active part of sports (and marching band and Greek) culture that is difficult to eliminate. High school and college athletes see pro teams hazing rookies. It seems like there is mounting pressure each year to top the previous year’s hazing activities to be more disgusting, more humiliating, more dangerous. Plus, there is the “pass it on” revenge mentality of hazees who want to be hazers the next year. A disturbing part of some of these team hazing rituals is the prevalence of simulated sex acts, rape with broomsticks, nudity or, as in the case at Andover, the ingestion of sperm. All of these hazing activities are based on a toxic mix of homophobia, humiliation and the need to exert power over other younger or smaller teammates.

Hazing, though a kind of bullying, has a different purpose than typical bullying. Rather than reinforcing a student’s outsider and inferior status and making it clear that the student being bullied will never be accepted into the bully group, hazing is framed as a rite of passage that must be endured before a student is accepted into the group. Hazing is often defended by both hazers and hazees and framed as a positive activity: team building.

What does it take to change this deeply rooted aspect of sports culture? Laws help. Education helps. Public exposure helps.

The real route to change, however, requires a much deeper change in athletics. Hazing will always be with us unless we can make respect a key underlying core value in athletics. Respect for self, teammates, referees, opponents and the game. As long as sports are thought of as a metaphor for war and the process of competition is framed as battle of masculine domination and subordination, hazing will continue to be an accepted part of sport culture. I am not talking about respect as it is often used in sports. I am not talking about perceived slights to one’s manhood as disrespect or earning respect because of one’s dominance as a feared physical presence on the field.

I mean respect as a baseline expectation of all coaches and athletes in all aspects of athletics. Respect as a core value would mean never tolerating hazing, bullying, name-calling, taunting, stomping or any of the other cheap ways that athletes and coaches seek a superficial imitation of respect.

I love sports and competition. They have been a part of most of my life as a high school, college and adult athlete. I have not always been respectful myself in my interactions with opponents or teammates, but perfection is not the goal. The goal is learning to be respectful when it is most difficult. The heat of competition challenges us to live up to our ideals, but when athletes and coaches do it, they earn a deeper kind of respect. Respect begets respect.

We need coaches who can teach this to young athletes. We need pro athletes who set an example of what true respect looks like. We need to teach young athletes that hazing is not only illegal, it is disrespectful and unacceptable on a much deeper level . I hope every high school coach in the country takes this opportunity to sit down with her or his team to talk about hazing and respect and makes it clear that being a teammate is not about enduring humiliation and degradation or inflicting pain and embarrassment. It is about respect and support. It is about the collective pursuit of excellence with honor.

Sadly, in sports, we too often accept a pale and distorted definition of respect that in its fragility and artificiality, actually promotes behaviors that we profess to abhor.

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Why We Need State and Federal Non-Discrimination Laws That Include Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity

Sorry for the clunky title, but I couldn’t figure out another way to get the point across in a snappy clever way in fewer words. Nikki Williams has been teaching geography for three years and was an assistant volleyball at a public charter school just outside Dallas, TX for three years. She was about to realize a lifelong dream of coaching basketball this season too. From all accounts she is a popular and successful teacher/coach supported by students and parents. She has received positive performance evaluations and a letter of commendation from the superintendent. It all sounds good so far.

But just before basketball season started in October, Nikki was fired. Nikki filed a grievance with the school claiming that she was fired because she is a lesbian. Apparently school officials became aware of this when Nikki’s partner began attending volleyball games this fall.

Students and parents have rallied to support Nikki pressing school administrators to explain their decision. The parents and students are unconcerned about Nikki’s sexual orientation. They are upset that a popular and successful young teacher/coach is suddenly gone. A petition for her reinstatement has been signed by over 100 parents and 50 students. The total school enrollment is 300.

Administrators have denied that Nikki’s “gender preference” (I assume they mean “sexual orientation”) played any role in their decision to dismiss Nikki. Parents and students asked what did prompt her firing. Administrators, hiding behind claims that they are prohibited from discussing the reasons by “privacy concerns” did a little evasive dance justifying their decision and refusing to reconsider it. They later claimed that her firing was due to a single incident in school when Nikki did not report some students who were skipping class. The parents think firing Nikki is an extreme and disproportionate reaction to the incident. I agree. To add insult to injury, administrators have tapped a former football coach to coach the girls’ basketball team. He has never coached basketball or girls and apparently resigned a previous coaching position because a grievance of some kind was filed against him. I guess school officials are reassured that there is probably not much of a chance he is a lesbian. Surely an unqualified man with a questionable professional record must be a better role model for the team, right?

Back to the title of this post – The saddest part of this situation is that Nikki may have no legal protections to challenge her dismissal. Texas is one of 29 states that do no protect its citizens from discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation or gender identity. No federal laws prohibit employment discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation or gender identity either.

Bigotry and stupidity looks like it might win this round in the long term fight to have coaches and teachers evaluated on the basis of their work and personal integrity rather than who they love. Nikki’s students and their parents get this. Too bad the school administrators don’t.

This article includes contact information for the Life School Waxahachie administration if you want to let them know your thoughts on this.

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Revival of the Horse’s Patoot Salute!

I haven’t awarded a Horse’s Patoot Salute in a while, but I have a new winner for you. The Horse’s Patoot Salute is my personal award for coaches, athletic administrators, physical education teachers and athletes who demonstrate stunning levels of intentional or unintentional homophobia, sexism and transphobia such that it can only by explained by arrogance, stupidity or some combination of the two.

Drum roll, please….The Horse’s Patoot Salute goes to Pat Lynch, (former) football coach at Buffalo High School in Wyoming.

Ex-coach Lynch earned his way into the Horse’s Patoot Salute Hall of Fame for creating and distributing a “Hurt Feelings Report” to his team before a playoff game recently.

Apparently ex-coach Lynch believes that his athletes should not have hurt feelings because it is not manly. The sarcastically worded “survey” lists several reasons for his athletes to check off as reasons for filing the report of hurt feelings. Among the reasons he included on the survey are:
I am a pussy.
I have woman-like hormones
I am a queer
I am a little bitch
I am a crybaby
I want my mommy

The survey then asks for the “little sissy” filing the report to sign his name and asks for the name of the “real man” who “hurt your sensitive little feelings.”
After Lynch’s survey became public and the school received complaints, Lynch resigned his coaching position, one he had for 13 years, and apologized to the school board. Unfortunately, the superintendent excused the coach’s actions by saying that he “just made a mistake and meant no harm.”

The final irony though is that ex-coach Lynch will remain in his position as a guidance counselor. Really? He’s a guidance counselor? You can’t make this stuff up.

Congratulations, Mr. Lynch, on your Horse’s Patoot Salute.

Thanks to Outsports.com where I first saw this story.

Friday, November 11, 2011

Yet More Dot Connecting By Gwen Knapp

Here's another article picking up on the connections between the current Penn State scandal and the cover up/protection of Rene Portland by the same cast of university officials.

More Dot Connecting On Penn State

Mechelle Voepel writes another excellent article connecting the dots at Penn State.

Connecting the Dots at Penn State

I've been meaning to write a blog post about the Penn State Football Scandal, but life is really crazy right now and I just didn't get to it. However, I found a great article that expresses my thoughts as well as I could have. Luke Cypher, an ESPN writer does a great job here making the connection between Penn State's complicity in allowing a sexual predator free rein in the football complex and and in enabling Rene Portland to discriminate against lesbians on her basketball team for 27 years. It all all reflects the same failure and the same hypocrisy. Thank you, Luke.