We Need to Learn to Punish Athletes (Part I)

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You read it all the time. A player loses playing time, is benched or is held out of practice for "violating team rules." The coach will be tight lipped and expect that to be the end, case closed. In most cases the issue does end there and the privacy of the team and player are protected. But not all.  

Butch Davis is confronting the agony at North Carolina where the 14 players were held out of games for violating team rules; but the players also probably violated major NCAA rules. Keeping them out involves not just team rules but protecting the integrity of a schedule, any victories and avoiding even more violations. 

Davis acknowledged that as coach he must do a better job of educating and monitoring the behavior of his players both those who consorted with agents but also those who had tutors write papers. I have discussed this issue of demanding absolute accountability from coaches and Davis, like others, now lives in the shadow of the USC penalties. 

The phrase "violating team rules" sounds both innocuous and mysterious. No one quite knows that the team rules are, and outsiders are usually not informed what team rules were actually violated. Sometimes everyone know because headlines stalk the team and players as with Oregon's quarterback Jeremiah Masoli or several years ago where Bob Stoops at Oklahoma held out his starting quarterback  Rhett Bomer for violating team rules, and later NCAA rules. I want to focus on internal team rules and not the obvious cases where athletes violate NCAA or state legal rules.

These coaching decisions define the boundaries of a team and its culture. Penalizing an athlete, especially with lost playing time tests a coach's courage and integrity to hold the team together to the coach's standards. Fine teams depend upon strong internalized values that players accept and act upon in a spontaneous way even under pressure or in face of temptation. The culture depends upon clear rules but lives through the examples and peer enforcement of older players. The key to an athletic team's culture begins and ends with the coach and the coach's ideals, courage and consistency in inculcating those norms. 

Acting to suspend, penalize or limit practice or play for players who violate team rules is essential to building a team culture. These actions are critical if a coach is to keep control of the team. Every good coach demands accountability, and accountability begins with having clear expectations and holding oneself and players up to them.

All players know some athletes are more valuable than others. Most elite college athletes were elite stars in high school. More than a few were coddled as stars, and one of a college coach's great challenges is to meld the all stars of her or his recruited teams into teams of mutual support. The variable that unites them all are common rules and cultures. They all live by the same rules. A good coach must have and enforce the rules. The quickest way to lose a team is for players to believe either that a coach will not enforce rule and norms or, worse, that a coach selectively enforces the norms; stars get separate treatment.

Because rules serve as the rebar for building culture, they can cover anything. With the new emphasis upon academics, many team rules cover class attendance and address deportment in class. Other rules reinforce ideals of respect for team and each other and stipulate being on time for practice, meetings or transportation, dress codes or language codes. Others guard team relationships with rules on fighting, celebrating or on bench conduct.  More and more rules encompass off campus behavior such as drinking, drug use and curfews. Some try to protect the physical integrity of the team by prohibiting players from playing dangerous sports during season. More than a few athletes blow knees or ankles playing basketball or surfing or roller boarding. It drives coaches nuts.

The penchant for rules can proliferate out of control, and some teams having sheets of them. The  more rules the tighter the box of accountability. But the proliferation of rules usually spells problems and makes it harder to identify what is serious and what is not.  I know and respect one coach whose only rule is “do not dishonor the team." It treats the athletes as adults and works surprisingly well on a very close knit team with strong senior leadership.

Standing up for rules tests a coach's mettle and often defines whether the coach will hold the trust and respect of the team. If a coach does not suspend a player for a major violation, she or he will lose the team. If they apply one set of rules for the stars and another to the rest, they will lose the team.  We should admire and support coaches who have the courage to suspend and penalize for violations. 

It takes guts and integrity to keep a star player out of a vital game. As I've made clear universities claim to judge coaches on integrity but ultimately do so only on wins and losses. If a coach has the money to hold out a player to protect the rules, even if the player can impact the possible victory, we should praise and reward it.