Why is the Coach ALWAYS responsible for athletes behaving badly?

football-lightingThis is a tough post for me because it is about an emotionally charged topic.  The recent allegations of hideous hazing incidents at Conestoga High School have really hit close to home.  As a parent, I feel sick to my stomach that incidents like this occur and that every day we continue to see examples of how vulnerable our children are in today’s society – vulnerable to egregious behavior on the part of their peers (often other minors), strangers, and adults in their lives – and yes, coaches.

But are coaches always at fault when athletes behave badly?  While again, I am sickened by the alleged incidents at Conestoga, I am also keenly aware of this particular coach’s character.  I know John Vogan because I coached for more than 10 years at Conestoga High School.  As a rowing coach, I often crossed paths with Coach Vogan during winter land training and I know him to be a man filled with care and concern for every one of his athletes.  An article written about Coach Vogan a few years ago, describes the coach I know.

The thing is, as the general public, we are angered that there was no locker room supervision.  I get that, but as a coach, I know I would rarely enter the locker room and now more than ever, coaches have to be very careful about being in a locker room with minors.  It’s a damned if you do, damned if you don’t situation for coaches.

Is there restroom supervision during school hours?  I would guess there is not.  Are teachers responsible for students’ behavior when they are not in the classroom?  No, they are not.  It seems that we hold coaches accountable for athletes at all times – whether we are with them or not. Have we decided to penalize the parents of those accused in the Conestoga incident?  It seems to me the parents of minor children should be held more accountable than a football coach for the actions of their children. First and foremost, parents should teach their children how to treat people and to stand up against this type of violence.  But, of course, we are blaming the coach.

When someone told me this week that Coach Vogan resigned and the rest of his staff was fired, I said, “that could have been my husband or I – quite easily, actually.”  When we were coaching at Conestoga, we found out our rowers were participating in a form of hazing behavior that had apparently been occurring annually.  We saw ourselves as diligent in making sure our athletes were respectful and followed our expectations for conduct, but we had NO IDEA they were acting outside of the boundaries we established while in school.  We weren’t at school; they came to us at a boathouse.  Could they have hazed one another while dressing in the locker room to come down to the boathouse for practice?  Absolutely.  Would we, as their coaches have known about it?  No, not unless we were told. Luckily, we were told and were able to address it to the team and the team leadership worked to help everyone understand the behavior was unacceptable.  I am also proud to say that when we coached these young people, officials and other coaches would approach my husband and I to tell us how well-behaved and respectful our athletes were – and we agreed.  But guess what?  These respectful young athletes also made mistakes and bad decisions and treated one another poorly at times – nothing as heinous as the current allegations, but they made bad decisions and misbehaved a lot.  We could only address what we knew about and I am confident there were many things we did not know about. From my experience with Coach Vogan, I know he definitely addressed athletes’ behaviors and actions throughout his tenure, but as coaches, we are not omnipresent.  We are highly focused on our team’s goals and individual athletes’ goals and may miss issues among the athletes.  If you have ever coached a competitive program, you know what I am talking about.

I only wish to stand beside Coach Vogan and the other coaches that are working hard to coach our children in a society eager to use coaches as scapegoats.  It is much easier to place blame on a coach than to keep the coach in place and work to implement strategies for prevention.  I don’t know the facts in this case or where fault lies, but I do know we can not blame a coach and stop there.

We need comprehensive, required hazing and violence prevention programs geared towards those participating in competitive sports and specialized training for their coaches.   Firing a good coach for his athletes’ behaviors will not prevent future incidents.  It is my hope that Conestoga High School, a school I passionately care about, will take the lead in creating highly effective prevention programs that could be replicated in high schools throughout the country.

My thoughts and prayers go out to everyone involved in this situation.