Blog: July 2009

Coach-Athlete Boundary Lines

By Abigail Funk

Males have been coaching female athletic teams for a long time. But a few recent headlines have some concerned administrators and parents questioning the dynamic created when an adult male is in a position of authority over teenage girls.

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In the past month, an assistant girls' basketball coach and an athletic trainer at Sussex Central High School in Georgetown, Del., were both arrested for allegedly having inappropriate sexual relationships with female students. The coach, 26 years old, was also a social studies teacher at Sussex, and is accused of having sex with a 15-year-old student. The 25-year-old athletic trainer, who was also a full-time substitute teacher on campus, has been charged with sexual extortion and unlawful sexual contact with an 18-year-old girls' soccer player.

Unfortunately for residents of the area, this wasn't the first time an adult male employed by the school system engaged in inappropriate behavior with a teenage girl. Last year, the Sussex High principal was sent to prison for having a sexual relationship with a 17-year-old female student. And four years ago, a male softball coach at a nearby high school was found guilty of raping a 17-year-old player on his team.

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In May, a former girls' ice hockey coach at Park High School in Cottage Grove, Minn., was arrested for having sex with two 16-year-old girls who played on the Park High team he coached several years earlier. As a result, he was put on paid leave from his current position as a girls' ice hockey coach at a private preparatory school in nearby Faribault, Minn.

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Similar to most other states, high schools in Delaware and Minnesota are legally required to do background checks on teachers before hiring them, but coaches are not subject to a more extensive check. According to The News Journal, a 2001 survey from the American Association of University Women Educational Foundation found the second-highest number of offenders in sexual misconduct cases in schools to be coaches. (Teachers ranked first.)

After the arrests at Sussex High, Delaware Interscholastic Athletic Association Executive Director Kevin Charles asked the state Department of Education for more educational work to be done on this sensitive topic.

"There's a special bond between a coach and an athlete and it can lead to a lifelong influence as they grow into adults," Charles told The News Journal. "We all look back on coaches who had an influence on our lives in a positive way. If you have that, there's an opportunity for it to go in a negative way, too ... In an educational setting, these coaches are teachers. Boundaries have to be drawn, and it has to be the adult who draws the boundaries."

Robert Shoop, a Kansas State University law professor and author of "Sexual Exploitation in Schools: How to Spot It and Stop It," talked to The News Journal about ways to discourage inappropriate relationships in a scholastic athletic setting. He brought up four points of emphasis.

•Schools should have a clear policy describing the appropriate boundaries for sexual harassment and abuses.
•Schools should require training for all personnel, from principals to custodians.
•Every student must undergo comprehensive training to understand the nature of sexual harassment and abuse.
•Each school should have someone trained to investigate reports of abuses, preferably two people, a man and a woman.
Too many times," Shoop told The News Journal, "it's a case where the principal is going to the teacher and saying, 'You're not doing anything wrong, are you?' The coach says, 'No, I'm not,' and that's the end."

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While the above examples are an athletic director's and parent's worst nightmare, an inappropriate relationship between a male coach and female athlete doesn't always have to escalate to a sexual level in order to be harmful. In Pennsylvania, a trio of incidents has sparked debate within the community.

A 63-year-old male high school field hockey coach has been accused of being physically rough with players over his seven-year tenure at the school, including pushing them into position on the field and digging his thumbs into their collar bones when trying to get a point across. But while two parents of his players brought the complaints to the school board, a large number of players have spoken up in support of the coach.

"It's hard to be a male coach of a female sport," the coach told The Patriot-News. "What I consider to be a problem may not be a problem. What I consider not to be a problem may be a problem because of the different perspective and age level."

An investigation was completed by district officials, and the coach, who is also a softball coach at a nearby high school, was given instructions for improvement, but the district wouldn't divulge what the instructions are. For a time, the coach, who was named Coach of the Year by a local newspaper in 2007, remained on staff, but recently resigned.

A nearby male coach of a high school softball team has been accused of making inappropriate sexual comments about players' appearances. The accusations, brought by one current and two former players, prompted the school to suspend him from his position as a physical education teacher without pay. He has since resigned as coach.

Finally, another male coach of a high school softball team in Pennsylvania has been accused of intimidating players to not speak up about some questionable coaching practices. Forty parents of players showed up at a school board meeting to voice their concern. Terry Fromson, an attorney with the Women's Law Project, says no matter the concern, open communication lines from administrators to the athletes is a must.

"Because local school boards come with their own sets of internal politics, open dialogue among girls and their school is all the more important," Fromson told The Patriot-News. "Many young women aren't aware of what's unlawful and inappropriate."

Some Pennsylvania coaches who heard about the uproar also had some advice. Warren Jones, Head Boys' and Girls' soccer coach at Shippensburg High School, told The Sentinel he tends to treat both his boys' and girls' teams similarly, but he is sensitive to the male coach-female athlete dynamic. This year, he had three female volunteer coaches so there was a female presence on the coaching staff.

Experts agree that male coaches of girls' teams should err on the side of caution. And athletic directors need to remind those coaches that parents and athletes are aware of how the male coach-female athlete dynamic has taken a turn for the worst in some instances. An open line of communication between the athletic director and coaches and athletes is a good first step for solving problems before they have a chance to bubble up.


Abigail Funk is an Assistant Editor at Athletic Management.

FEEDBACK

As a 59 year old male who has devoted the past 14+ YEARS TO HELPING ADOLESCENT FEMALE ATHLETES train to play their sport; becoming a better student-athlete and minimizing their risk for injury - it comes as no surprise to me that male coaches overstep their boundaries.
However, the vast majority - probably 99%+ - do not.
In the past 10-15 years, I have been appalled at the lack of respect adolescent females, in general, receive from their male peers. It is so bad in parts of CA that health education has a sex teaching component in 3rd and 4th grades now.
Well, those teens are now coaches and that lack of respect does not just go away - it stays and manifests itself in bad behavior towards females.
If males observed the following rules, it would work out best for everyone:
1. Always have at least one female assistant coach (minimum of two, so if one is not around, the other will be with you) with you and your team at all times
2. Touching - back of shoulders and upper back is acceptable; not hitting but an encouraging pat on the back. High fives are fine
3. One-on-one meetings - either in the open, but away from where others can hear you. If in an office - door should be open &/or have a female assistant coach with you
4. Consoling a crying female athlete - it happens and if you are not by yourself - I believe it is okay as long as it is the exception and not the rule
5. These rules should be handed out and signed by players and their parents/guardians before your season

If a male finds young females too enticing - get out and coach boys or men. Do not tempt yourself because if convicted - you will be labeled for life.

Respectfully submitted,
- Warren Potash, Fitness Therapist and CLU Athletics Operations Assistant
California Lutheran University Athletics - Equipment Room