Monday, October 11, 2010

Violating Team Rules II

I believe that setting and enforcing team rules profoundly impacts the quality of a team.  It also sets the standard by which a coach's mettle is tested. The other reason the phrase  "violating team rules" can be so important is to  protect the players. Whether it is North Carolina kicking a team star off the team, a high school volleyball coach suspending his five top players for a critical tournament or a pro coach suspending his star running back for "violating team rules," they all reflect the role of rules and coaches' authority and protecting the team member from unwarranted scrutiny.
Assuming we are not dealing with front page news like players running from police after being caught DUI or using papers written by tutors, the  default position of colleges and coaches and teams should be to protect the twenty year olds. In pro sports violations of drug rules are league infractions and are public, but most other violations also remain private. This privacy should not protect players from responsibility or due process, but protects their privacy of their relation to the team and to the coach. The umbrella terms "violating team rules" guards a player's their ability to make mistakes, deal with consequences and grow from them.

Social media domains are driving coaches nuts. Both involve social media and are leading coaches rules into new territory affecting the personal time and lives of players. Especially in college time on Facebook becomes part of the journey of self expression and self definition. Facebook, friends and teams go together naturally. 

The problems arise when athletes post uncensored shots of parties, drinking or comments about the shenanigans of  the team. Other coaches and web sites troll the Facebook sites for news about the team  such as injuries, fissures or tensions. The media blogs look for hints about anything scandalous and sites like the old lurk in wait to capture and humiliate student athletes in compromising positions. More dangerously incidents of stalking young athletes often begin on  Facebook. 
 At the same time an obsession with tweeting can lead to uncensored comments from young athletes. The comments and braggodocio can feed other team's anger or reveal important points. Tweeting just invites players to blurt out anything and seek attention or set themselves up as media stars  against the team culture. Some of the tweet blurts can  lead to inadvertent NCAA violations if players tweet about contact with recruits. More and more coaches are trying to rein in the social media world. Some coaches demand maximum privacy settings for social media sites and prohibit tweeting.  Others quietly  "friend" their team members or follow tweets to keep a covert eye on activities. 

A recent incident illustrates the problems. Bob Stoops indefinitely suspended Jaz Reynolds an Oklahoma wide receiver  last week. After a mass assault and suicide at Texas Reynolds  tweeted "Hey everyone is Austintx...kill yourself#evilaught."  Stoops correctly stated, "Our rivalry with Texas will not come at the expense of dignity and respect. We have great concern for what happened in Austin and I am incredibly disappointed that someone connected with our team would react so callously." 

Another vexing problem covers about how far rules should extend arises when an athlete gets in trouble by violating the law, not team rules. Here coaches, schools and teams are all over the place. I don't have a good answer, but felony investigations usually mean being kept out of practice and play until the legal system makes a decision about prosecution. It sounds like guilty until proven innocent, and it is; but coaches have to deal with too many off field distractions and need to worry about the reputation of the program, the university and themselves. No one wants to be playing felons, well that is not completely true. 

Most of the decisions are made on a case by case basis with attention given to whether the charge involved misdemeanor, violence, assault or violations  of team and state rules around alcohol or drug use etc. While teams and coaches should not be in the business of judging legal issues; they do have deep issues of reputation and culture and university norms to uphold. This means that arrests and prosecutions now become the domain for coaches to discipline players.

Rules can be enforced a number of ways. Most involve one on one impacts. You miss a class, you run or miss a practice etc. Some involve collective punishment. Athlete Z misses an exam; the entire team runs or practices at 6 AM. Morally this always has problems, but team culture needs team members holding each other responsible. Coaches are not always there and sustained effort and integrating norms into one's behavior rely upon fellow team members pushing, demanding and informally enforcing the norms. Sometimes the entire team needs to be reminded of this and sometimes the entire team's influence needs to be brought to bear on someone to move them to accept, abide and ultimately internalize the rules. Most athletes can run forever; early practices, more running, they can handle these; they hurt but they are doable. What ultimately matters to players and what ultimately must define the most important rules is playing time ,and on good teams playing time is tied to practice time. Coaches save the playing time issues for the critical issues, but coaches must be wiling to withhold playing time when the rules are on the line. 

Teams can have way too many rules, other teams can have just one such as: 
 bring no dishonor on the team.
The few rules approach builds upon an ideal of judgement and pushing young athletes to think and reflect. It works  better for veterans than young players. The importance of the rules, themselves, should decline over time.  If the team has internalized the rules and goals; they will use peer pressure and example and other subtle and not so subtle devices to "educate" the younger athletes and "socialize" them into the norms. Heavy emphasis upon rules makes most sense for the young athletes or when a new coach is building a new culture. If it works, the rules evolve into norms and become much less visible and onerous. This internalization of norms and expectations of effort and discipline makes a program and is why most coaches will tell you it takes 3-5 years to really build a program rather than just resuscitate a team. The sad part is how few athletic directors or owners give the coaches the time they need to transform a culture.

When players don't play or leave the team for violating team rules, you can be assured it is serious These actions are   about violence, classes, loyalty to the team and the team concept. The actual rule violation might seem minute. But in the coach's mind, these violations impact team solidarity, commitment or possible legal violations. The coach has to defend and build a culture, and no one can be exempt. The coach has to prove to players and, to be honest, to him or herself, that their values and integrity of the team matter more than just winning. 

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