Miami Dolphins offensive linemen Richie Incognito (left) and Jonathan Martin during a preseason football practice in 2013. (AP Images)
The Wells Report issued last Friday contained gut-wrenching findings on the bullying, hazing and harassment of the Miami Dolphins’ Jonathan Martin by his teammates and at least one coach. The report also provides a great starting point for preventing such behavior in high school sports programs.
If nothing else, media focus on Martin and his main tormentor, Richie Incognito, will prompt conversation, like the one we held in November at the Positive Coaching Alliance (PCA), where I am a Senior Marketing Communications and Content Manager. For high school sports administrators, coaches, parents and players, conversation is the first step toward creating a culture of inclusion, which will improve the experience young athletes have both on and off the field.
Here are the key things anyone involved in high school sports can learn from the Wells Report.
Administrators: You are Responsible for Creating and Communicating Correct Culture
The report largely absolves the top of the Dolphins organization, whose leaders had issued a written anti-harassment policy and stated they had no knowledge of what Martin and other victims endured. While that may sound unlikely, if accepted, the question becomes, “Why didn’t they know?”
High school athletic directors must do more than just issue a policy against bullying, hazing and harassment (which, by the way, should define those terms, specify what “zero tolerance” means, clearly state consequences, and enforce those consequences when necessary). ADs must be invested in implementing the policy. That means frequent conversations with coaches and players to ensure a culture of respect flows from coaches to players, from teammate to teammate, and from players to coaches, officials, teachers, parents and others in the community.
Athletic directors can demonstrate the importance of these issues and instruct coaches, players and parents by:
- Bringing in guest speakers to help create a culture of respect
- Adapting to the latest developments, such as Michael Sam coming out as a gay man, which will inspire more closeted high school players to come out, creating new challenges in developing cultures of inclusion
- Letting everyone in the program know—consistently, frequently and loudly—that bullying, hazing and harassment are not part of the way we do things here.
Much more on the administrator’s role in organizational culture appears in Developing Better Athletes, Better People: A Leader’s Guide to Transforming High School and Youth Sports into a Development ZoneTM, the latest book by PCA Founder Jim Thompson.
Coaches: You Must Have Your Finger on the Pulse of the Team
Coaches have many of the same obligations as athletic directors. However, because they are in direct daily contact with players, it is even more important for coaches to know exactly what is happening. As part of a high school coach’s job to pursue both winning and teaching life lessons through sports, it is critical for them to guide the dynamics of players’ interpersonal relationships.
Emphasizing togetherness, unity and acceptance is the way to team success on the scoreboard while also conveying character traits that are valuable in life beyond sports. The coach’s job is to serve the players, and it is in the best interest of players and coaches alike for coaches to not just prevent bullying, hazing and harassment, but to proactively build an inclusive team culture.
Parents: Play a Proactive Role
Perhaps the only heartwarming aspect of the Wells Report was the parental support Martin received. Excerpts of text messages from Martin’s parents as he struggled with the Dolphins showed their unconditional love and support.
High school sports parents must take a proactive role to detect and address any sort of abuse. Parents should check in frequently with their children, using open-ended prompts, such as “Tell me about practice.” Listen and watch carefully for any change in the child, such as suddenly not wanting to practice or participate in team activities.
It also helps to have a good parent-coach partnership. High school coaches and parents should get to know each other well enough to comfortably approach each other to discuss what is best for the player. Coaches and parents may be each others’ greatest allies in uncovering issues that threaten an individual player or the overall team culture.
Players: You Have The Power
Each level down in the hierarchical power structure of a program—from AD to coach to parent to player—entails a greater degree of intimacy with the team. Nobody is closer to the front lines of the team dynamic than the players themselves. That’s why it’s critical for players to step up when they see teammates headed toward bullying, hazing and harassment. Media and police reports of high school sports hazing too often mention crimes even more harmful than those detailed in the Wells Report, including physical and sexual abuse.
Players have the power to prevent these situations. Often it just takes one voice of reason, one person with the moral courage to say, “Stop, this is wrong.”
Of course, ideally players would not need to defend each other against negative behavior, but instead would focus—along with the AD, coach and parents—on proactively developing a thriving culture. The true beauty of high school sports is the way in which a diverse group of young people can come together for a greater good. That may be the life lesson high school sports teach, but it can’t happen within a culture of bullying, hazing or harassment.