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By Sue Duprat, athletic director, Harwood Union Middle/High School
To the Harwood Community:
Like most athletic directors, most days I just love my job. I love the daily interaction with students, families, teachers, coaches and community members. I love working in an environment where kids truly want to be, where they learn and grow. I love the excitement, the joy and disappointment that comes with competing, and watching students develop positive self-image and core values through their experiences in interscholastic athletics. That's most days. Some days, we have to deal with stuff that just really doesn't seem to make sense, and today is one of those days.
On Tuesday, September 18, The Times Argus, for a reason know only to the editor, chose to reprint, in its entirety and in a shadow box, a letter to the editor decrying "HS Coaches failing in Sportsmanship" that they had previously run (on Saturday). Perhaps there weren't enough contentious responses the first time? Trying to stir up a little community drama? Or just plain careless editorial procedures?
But while I find it more than a little annoying that the letter was reprinted, I really do welcome this opportunity. You see, I had no intention of responding to that first letter.
I, as is my community, am appalled that such inflammatory, unfair and wholly inaccurate comments were printed a second time. It is a slap in the face of all schools, programs coaches, and most importantly student-athletes to make the leap from a red card infraction to "giving the kids bats and let that last one standing" claim victory. At every level in Vermont, schools, teams, administrators and the VPA, we address sportsmanship, fair play and positive competition daily. And we do a heck of a job. The incidents that concern us most very rarely include deliberate unsporting actions by coaches, teams or schools, or celebrating egregious actions by players or coaches. Dealing with issues of sportsmanship with our teams is relatively easy; we have a captive audience. It is a far greater challenge to deal with rude, vulgar and inappropriate actions by spectators.
As for the letter(s), let me give you a little background: The letter to the editor was first sent as a letter to the principal at Harwood two weeks ago, with copies to me, the VPA, and the Washington West Superintendent. We thought the writer was looking for an answer to her questions about a situation at a soccer match. Apparently, that wasn't the case. I responded to her inquiry and we exchanged another set of emails as we each clarified our positions. When another local newspaper called the following Tuesday, about receiving the email letter to the editor, I forwarded a copy of my original response to the writer. What they chose to do with it is out of my hands, but at least I had the chance to offer an alternative interpretation. I'm sorry that The Times Argus didn't do that, but that really is up to their editors, and they chose to print it on Saturday. And Tuesday.
Because team sports are what we are discussing, I want to invite you, any and all parents, fans and curious onlookers to go out to a soccer match or field hockey game; watch our kids and our coaches. Watch how hard they work at their craft. The majority, the VAST majority, at all levels at ALL schools, do an incredible job. I am fortunate to be able to say that Harwood has on staff some of the best. I am proud to work with them, and proud that they are working with our incredible students. Do some students celebrate the "big hit," the hard slide? Yes. Do some adults? Yes. Do some folks go to Thunder Road hoping as much to see the big crash as a great race? Certainly, we as educators take very seriously our role to model appropriate responses and actions. And I can assure you; no one at Harwood condones, celebrates, or tolerates that response from our athletes. One of our tasks is to use co-curricular participation as a means to help teach these lessons. Not celebrate any short-term failure to have done so.
I have the following quote posted on my wall which reminds me when things get heated that:
"Neither the intensity of your feelings, nor the certainty of your convictions is any assurance that you are right."
We should all keep that in mind.
For further clarification, I am attaching my response to the emails, as well as the writer's email for your information.
Dear Ms. Blanco,
Although the email was not addressed directly to me, please allow me to respond. First, let me introduce myself: My name is Sue Duprat and I am the athletic and activity director at Harwood Union Middle/High School. Secondly, I, too, was at that game.
No one involved with scholastic-based sports can or will ever argue with you that the seeming last bastion of fair play and sportsmanship may well be at the high school level. Athletic directors across the state, in concert with the VPA, are constantly vigilant to the erosion of good sportsmanship at our level that is accelerated by media examples of poor behavior at the professional and, alas, even the college level on an almost daily basis. I doubt that there is an administrator anywhere in the state that would condone any celebration of a gross violation of the spirit and letter of the rules of fair play.
As I mentioned, I was at the match, and did indeed witness the jersey-grab from behind that warranted, as you said, expulsion from the game and a two-game suspension on top of that, for the offender. But I respectfully disagree with you about what happened next. No one associated with Harwood was proud of that moment. While you saw coaches' high-fives and congratulations, what I witnessed was much different: Our head coach hugged the ejected boy, who was crying, told him that his actions were clearly unacceptable, and that they would talk about it later. Our bench players did congratulate the player, but on his performance for the previous 70 minutes of outstanding play.
Part of the beauty of interscholastic sports is that boys and girls, young men and women can learn some of life's hard lessons in a safe environment.
Our player made a bad choice -- a choice that is unacceptable to the coach, the team and our school. It really isn't enough to say that he neither intended to harm his opponent, nor actually did harm him. But our response has to be to teach, not terrorize.
Had my coach gone on a tirade, verbally berating a student in public, you may have felt better, but I would have been very concerned, and that coach would have had to answer to me as to why he thought that was acceptable. We, as adults, are rightfully held to a higher standard of conduct than the students we teach. We need to model appropriate behavior, reward good choices, and help kids learn from poor choices. Adults (coaches or fans) who berate students in public have learned the wrong lesson somewhere. I would hope that if you have a son or daughter who makes a similar error in judgment, that they are fortunate enough to have a coach like ours who will help the student learn the lesson while respecting the dignity of that student.
Any student who is ejected from a game must meet with me to determine if the penalty required by rule is sufficient. And part of my conversation with this young man was about public perception, and what he had done to his and the schools reputation. We at Harwood are proud of our student-athletes; we are proud of our coaches and the great work that they do with our students. We certainly have never been, nor are we now, a "win at all cost" school. And honestly, there really aren't schools like that in Vermont.
I understand that you have your own perspective on the game and this situation; and as an athletic administrator, I can assure you that we deal with any such incident as it happens, and not just when someone calls us on it. Our coach had discussed and dealt with this incident the day after the game, at a time that was appropriate, and in an environment that would lead to learning, recognition of a bad choice and change of behavior, and not just punishment. I hope that you can understand our approach.
Thank you for your email
In response to her reply:
Thanks again for your email. I actually do not think that we disagree about the facts.
I remember watching "Superman" shows when I was a kid, and his "slogan" was something like "fighting for Truth, Justice and the American way"! Not fighting for the facts but the truth. And there's the rub.
We saw exactly the same actions; we understand them differently. We "know" the facts; we understand different truths. Watch any of our games. Our players always are greeted by our coach with a hand slap, and often a hug and a hair tussle. I heard what the coach said. Again: "That was unacceptable. You'll be fine, go sit with your teammates."
Did our player show deep remorse for the entire world to see? No, I don't think so either. Was he crying, confused and uncertain. Yes. Sit up straight, take your punishment like a man, and learn that this action is not to be repeated, ever.
Just as I can alter neither your perceptions, nor you mine, neither can we know how another feels in his heart, or what his intentions are.
The truth. It will be ever that elusive. It is just unfortunate that you would be willing to allow your judgment of a team, a coach and a school by actions that, if unseen but with an identical outcome, did the game, our students and our sports world proud. I am proud not of the actions of the student but of the response that our coaches and players did have to that action. Even though you can and have interpreted these actions differently.
Original email follows:
Sent: Sunday, September 09, 2007 1:08 PM
Subject: Observation From Harwood/BHS Boys Soccer game, Thursday,
Dear Mr. Pierson,
I am writing you with concerns over the behavior of the coaching staff from your boys' varsity soccer team. The game itself was a good one, played with lots of passion. With my heart in my mouth, I watched Harwood score on a fast breakaway after an unsuccessful attack and a flurry of shots from BHS. Though I am a fan of BHS and was disappointed that Harwood scored, it was fun to watch such a fast transition. The goal was clean and well won.
My concern comes from actions as the game progressed. Emotions became heated and this was to be expected. At one moment in the game, however, there was a breakaway from a BHS striker that looked to be a strong attempt on goal, much in the same way Harwood scored. However, a Harwood player took the BHS player down from behind, hard and illegally, just outside of the penalty box, preventing the shot and preventing the penalty kick. (Had it been three more feet in, a penalty kick would have been awarded where a player has a much greater chance of scoring than a direct kick. Instead, a direct kick was awarded which allowed for defense from Harwood, and the scoring opportunity ended.) The Harwood player paid for his transgression by being expelled from the game and receiving a red card which prevents him from playing for two games. I have no problem with that.
My issue comes with the behavior of the coaches. Upon ejection, the Harwood player received high fives from all his teammates and a hug from both coaches on the bench, congratulations all around. To prevent BHS from scoring, this kid threw out all values of sportsmanship and put great risk of permanent injury to the BHS player by taking him out from behind, and the Harwood coaching staff was elated. Had the BHS team stooped to such lows, Harwood never would have scored the first goal and never would have won the game.
Sportsmanship is a dying ethic in this country. It won't be improved much at the professional level as long as the salaries are so high and the stakes are so crucial. With so much money and prestige on the line, players and coaches play to win at all costs. The only way we can even try to resurrect it is by teaching it and enforcing it at the youth level, where money and prestige are not factors. There were no college scouts at this game, no money was on the line, no contracts were at stake. The support that boy got by getting red carded for a violent foul tells me that the Harwood philosophy of athletics is to win at all costs, and that turns my stomach. It is a huge reflection on your school, because varsity athletes are the school's representatives with the highest profile.
I'd like to know if this incident was brought to your attention. I'd like to know if the atmosphere that encouraged this level of play will be continued. Without some sort of interdiction, nothing will be done. On the scoreboard, Harwood won that game. We'll never know whether BHS could have tied it or not, whether BHS could have then rallied to score another. The dirty tactics worked. Harwood won. If nothing is done, the win-at-all-costs philosophy will continue to spread like rock snot in the Battenkill.
I'm a soccer fan, Mr. Pierson. I want to see good, technical soccer. It's a beauty to behold. Taking a player out from behind to prevent a goal, risking permanent knee and ankle injury to do so is mean and low and should never be tolerated (much less encouraged) at the high school level. If the spirit of the game and principles of sportsmanship aren't upheld by players, coaches and communities, we may as well just arm these kids with bats and the last one standing can beat their chests and call themselves winners.