The divine right of coaches

“You’re black,” Wooster coach Ron Malcolm is alleged to have said to 15-year-old Hannah Chatfield during a volleyball practice. That’s a weird comment, and it’s anyone’s guess why Malcolm would have thrown out such an ambiguous comment and then left it to be interpreted by others. Part of teaching is to be clear with students, and Malcolm left it for Chatfield’s mother to ask, “The question for us is, is it a compliment or an insult? What is it?”

That’s a risky question. Neither answer reflects well on the coach. If it’s an insult, it’s a reprehensible one. If it’s a compliment, he seems to be saying that Hannah Chatfield is a good athlete because she is black, which is a stereotype few educators would want to traffic in.

What bothers us more is the long tradition that tolerates the behavior of coaches in ways that would not be allowed in other courses of study, often in the name of “motivating” athletes. Not long ago in this valley, we saw a university professor who, while supervising a student teacher, pinched a student’s earlobe to get him to pay attention—and was prosecuted for it. Yet the psychological warfare that goes on in gymnasiums and on athletic fields is tolerated because it somehow “builds character.”

Anyone who has known an athlete who was brutalized by a coach in high school and then had to deal with that student in adult life knows how little character is built by coaches’ extreme behavior. Reflecting on his time as a high school football player, University of Virginia professor Mark Edmundson writes:

“The kind of intensity that sports—and especially kinetic sports like football—can provoke is necessary for any society: Thymos [spiritedness] must have its moment. But that intensity is mortally dangerous for society and for individuals, too. Sports can lead people to brutal behavior—I see no way to avoid the conclusion. To any dispassionate observer, it is clear that athletes find themselves in more brawls, more car wrecks, more spousal assaults, more drunk-driving episodes than the average run of the population.

“Sports can teach participants to modulate their passions—sports can help people be closer to Hector than to Achilles—but they can foment cruelty as well. Athletes, as everyone who went to an American high school will tell you, can be courtly, dignified individuals. But they’re often bullies; they often seek violence for its own sake. Some athletes take crude pleasure in dominating others; they like to humiliate their foes, off the field as well as on it. … If having a good character means having a coherent, flexible internal structure, where the best part rules over the most dangerous, then sports may not always be conducive to true virtue.”

We would argue that the intensity sports produces has its moment at risk to the rest of society, that such extreme behavior is not tolerated in other fields. Emotionally annihilating student athletes who, in most cases, are doing their best, is no way to motivate anyone. It is a way to send people off into the world angry and aggrieved.

It also fails to teach students a sense of the fitness of things. If emotionally brutalizing students to win a mere game is tolerable, what isn’t?