The 2013-14 school year has been a turbulent one in the athletic department at Westbrook High School. A black cloud has hung over this community since late fall, a pall cast by the choices of some and lack of leadership from those supposedly in charge.
In case you are unaware, the controversy arose when several Westbrook student athletes allegedly violated the school’s athletic code of conduct during the fall season. According to the Portland Press Herald, the code of conduct applies to students who are knowingly present where underage drinking is occurring. Upon reviewing the circumstances regarding the incident, school administrators deemed the investigation was flawed and revoked the suspensions, conveniently just in time for the Blue Blazes’ football play-off game.
Fast forward to April when athletic director Marc Sawyer announced he will be leaving at the end of the school year, citing an “incestuous culture of the community”. The Westbrook High alum believed going in this was his “dream job” but believed in holding students accountable for their actions.
Lo and behold, just over a week ago, many of these same student-athletes were allegedly involved in yet another underage drinking party, go figure. I guess a lesson was learned from their missteps in the fall, right? A suspension has been handed down to six athletes who were known to be involved, the duration of such has been unreported.
Of course this isn’t just a Westbrook issue, it can and often does happen in any community, really. While many get caught in scenarios like these, there are many other instances in which the perpetrators don’t get found out. That’s the risk many youngsters are willing to take. However, in the age of Facebook and other forms of social media being caught is much easier. After all, generally if you are involved in this sort of behavior, you probably aren’t bright enough to cover your steps.
Throughout the generations we have seen a laxness regarding substance abuse policies policing our student-athletes. It was common place for all athletic privileges to be revoked once drinking or other substance abuse was discovered. There was a enough of a deterrent involved that would cause some to think twice before taking part in that wild party. More common now is the two-week suspension for the first time offense while some schools handle issues on a case by case basis. Talk about opening up a can of worms. So how is this working out for us? By the looks of things, not so great. It seems as though there are more and more instances of underage drinking activity now than ever before.
I can understand to an extent wanting to help a student who actually has a drinking problem. In most of these instances I question whether or not someone has a real problem or they are simply being a rebellious teenager trying to stretch limits. My overriding assumption would be the latter.
As a coach, before accepting any position at a school, it is imperative you ask to review the school’s policies regarding the handling of these issues. If you can’t accept the terms the school puts forth, walk away. A situation will invariably arise at one time or another if you are there long enough.
I attended a coaches clinic conducted by Davidson College men’s basketball coach, Bob McKillop, just a few years ago. He stated towards the beginning of his lecture that the major problem with society is those in positions of authority have abdicated their leadership roles. This can be said of many of today’s parents, coaches, and school administrators. Far too many “lead” based on where the next phone call comes from or who screams the loudest.
Of course there are the societal messages we send to our young athletes. Alcohol and sports are practically intertwined in our country. It is simply part of the prevailing sports culture.
Back to the situation at Westbrook. It is truly appalling some of the feedback that has come about from these situations. Many close to the scene feel the school does not have any jurisdiction for something that goes on outside of school. They point to a form of “double jeopardy”. Excuse me? If you are a member of an athletic team, you don’t stop being a member of that team as soon as you leave the school for a game, match, or meet. Being an athlete means you are a role model in the community, like it or not.
Where athletics are to teach life lessons, one lesson is to be able to handle the position of being an athlete. In life if you hold a position where you represent an organization or company, what you do can have ramifications on employment. If an off-duty police officer, for instance, gets into a scuffle at a local bar, you can bet there will be consequences at the station. Coaches have been let go due to indiscretions in the community. By the way, Donald Sterling was not on NBA property when he made his infamous comments, was he?
Now before we start feeling too bad for our student-athletics, remember one thing: athletes, in general, hold a greater level of status and privilege in their schools and among their peers than the student body at large. They are generally the more popular students in school. Many find themselves in the headlines for a great performance the night before. Is it too much to ask our student-athletes who represent our schools and communities to conduct themselves in a manner fitting to bring honor.
In this space, I’ve generally tried to shine the spotlight on those who do great things in the area of youth and high school athletics. The vast majority of the kids are doing awesome things, keep their noses clean, and bring great honor to their schools and communities. Athletics can be a great vehicle to teach life lessons and if we are not doing so we are wasting our time and money. These life lessons often are most importantly taught to those kids who could go either way in life, years that can be really pivotal in their development. When we don’t hold our young people accountable, we as leaders fail and only act as enablers for further destructive behavior.
The community of Westbrook and all of our collective communities can and must do better.