The swamplike air flooded into the car as Jeffrey opened the door, his face flushed bright red and his eyes swimming with tears. It was his first football practice, and despite my reservations, I had agreed to allow him to play- and while I expected him to be muddy and tried after practice, the furious tears were disconcerting.
He shoved his backpack and bag angrily into the car and slid into his seat, arms folded, brows drawn down and scowling furiously while trying to fight back the tears. I was imagining him to be tired, or to have not been able to complete the drills to his own satisfaction. I was not imagining what he said next.
“No. NO. I’m never going back. Take me home mom. Please take me home!” Concern and surprise showed on my face, but he continued on, his whole body showing his indignation. “Is a coach supposed to swear at his team? Is a coach supposed to say GD and the S word and say the F word to a kid??! It was horrible mom! Take me home please!”
Stunned silence for a moment on my part. I’m thinking…huh? These are sixth graders, first week of school, at a school sporting activity. The teacher SWORE at them? and not just once, but over and over?? I attempt to calm him down, and ask him a few clarifying questions. Did the teacher swear at everyone, or just him? Did he say other things? What did he say? And what did you do?
It was a very emotional and wrenching few minutes, but it turns out this coach thought saying “I don’t f*cking care how you feel, move your G**-damn ass and run!” were perfectly acceptable for a team of eleven-year old boys. After two hours of this, Jeffrey told him, in tears, that he wouldn’t listen anymore, and he walked off the field and went to the locker room alone.
Fury doesn’t even begin to cover what was settling into my belly.
My goal was to get Jeffrey home and then reassess and call the school. As we were pulling out of the parking lot, we had to drive by the football field, and I saw the coach walking alone. I ripped the car to the side of the road, and told the kids to wait, that I would be right back. I did not raise my voice, and I did not attack him. I politely introduced myself and said who my son was.
He asked if Jeffrey was okay, that he’d left the field a few minutes early. Yes, I know, I told him- and I asked him quite pointedly- never raised my voice- “Why don’t you tell me what happened.” He gave some brief explanation of first day drills, blah blah blah. Yes. I understand that. Did my son tell you not to speak to him a certain way before he left the field?
“Um… yes. I’m sorry about that…”
At which point, still calmly, I reiterated everything Jeffrey had told me, including pronouncing all the words Jeffrey had only given me the letters for, and letting their vulgarity hang in the air. The color drained from his face. I asked him if this was in keeping with the school’s conduct for teachers and rules about profanity in the classroom, and what I should do with my son, who now lost all respect for his coach and didn’t want to come back to football. I asked him as a parent what he thought I should do, what HE would do if he were in my shoes.
He asked me not to tell, and spent several minutes apologizing. I told him I wasn’t to whom he owed an apology, and he walked towards my car with the intent of talking to Jeffrey. Jeffrey wouldn’t open the door or even roll the window down. I didn’t make him. The coach came around to my side of the car, and I let him lean in to speak to Jeffrey. He apologized. Several times.
I met with the principal this morning. I’m not out for blood, or even for this young coach’s job. I am out for reparative and corrective measures of behavior and coaching philosophy and an apology to all of those boys.
I am aware that there is some degree of tolerance for vulgar behavior among the sporting community- a wink and a nod to “boys will be boys”, but the truth is, abusive language is never acceptable, and I don’t believe the best coaches resort to it. The best coaches inspire with their example and with motivating the athletes rather than shaming or humiliating.
It’s posted over the entrance of the school on a large banner in school colors— School is a safe zone; kids are not to be bullied, humiliated, intimidated, threatened, or verbally abused. In talking with a friend about how to handle this today, she made an interesting observation, saying “It makes no difference if abuse or vulgarity is traditionally “part of football culture”— It shouldn’t be. If sexual harassment or racism were “part of the culture” should a child be expected to tolerate it in order to participate? This is not a decision a kid should be faced with in order to enjoy sports or any school activity.”
I’ve given Jeffrey the weekend to consider if he wants to continue with football. My worry is that what could have been a good and enjoyable experience for him is now going to be tainted and he will not wish to be a part of sports.
On a tangent, and I know it’s not a clear simple situation, but I could not be prouder of my boy for standing up, as hard as it must have been, and saying “no more!” and then walking alone to the locker room. Once again, my son shows me what courage looks like, and I am humbled.