High school is a microcosm of society; the actions we see today by professional and college athletes always find a way onto our playing fields and our practices. The current protests by our professional athletes will and may already have found their way to your schools.
At a recent Rotary meeting in the Midwest, a white high school football coach, in all his bravado, stated to a room full of white leaders in that community, that no football player of his would kneel for the anthem. If a player did, he would no longer be part of the team. The brash statement met with resounding applause and cheers.
According to Frank LoMonte, of the Student Press Law Center, “Public schools can’t discipline students for silent acts of political protest that don’t disrupt the operations of a school, like kneeling for the anthem or refusing to say the Pledge of Allegiance.”
As soccer coaches, regardless of where you coach in this country, we more than likely will deal with a very diverse population of athletes. Our sport appeals to people of all races and classes providing our players the opportunity to learn about other cultures and create bonds with others that never would have been possible without their connection to this game. The recent comments by our president has, for good or bad, dumped this issue right in our laps.
As people of influence, we can use this opportunity to foster conversations and growth. During these conversations, each and every member of the team has a chance to share their beliefs, making dialog the key to understanding. Discussions about what the “Star Spangled Banner” actually means and what a player may be attempting to protest can be facilitated.
If your program is based on character values, you can refocus the conversation on the values your team has established and lives by. Respect, one of my team’s core values, can be used to examine this issue. How can we respect each other’s opinions and still respect our team?
In a recent Monday Night Football game, Jerry Jones, owner of the Dallas Cowboys, who has been adamant that no player/employee of his will kneel during the anthem led his team to a compromise. The recent events affecting the NFL caused Jones and his team to have a deeper conversation, because Jones’ values and the concerns of his team were about to clash. However, through dialog and understanding, a decision was made to honor both sides of the issue. The players, coaches, and staff, including owner Jerry Jones, took a knee prior to the anthem and then all stood with locked arms in unity for the song.
What does this all mean? As high school coaches we have the opportunity to talk to our players and enhance our relationships with them. While a young man or woman, in a public high school setting has every right to silent protest, it may have a harmful or divisive effect on the team. Discussions about the team’s core values should take place and alternative actions should be explored.
The football coach at the Rotary meeting will find himself in a court battle if a player is kicked off for protesting. It is best to be proactive and have a plan as a team. A team statement regarding the issue can be printed in the game program. A community service project by the team can help bring awareness locally to the issue and bring some positive press along with it.
A key for the team is to find a way to address their concern or the concerns of their teammates without disrupting the game experience or the locker room. The focus should be on the team and the game during the event and then focus on the cause outside of the game. A good leader needs to be proactive, and engage in these tough conversations before the actions -- become a distraction.
(Greg Winkler is the United Soccer Coaches' Boys High School Advocacy Chair. He was 2012 NSCAA National Youth Coach of the Year, 2006 Wisconsin Youth Soccer Coach of the Year and 2005 NFHS Midwest Boys Coach of the Year. Winkler is the author of Coaching a Season of Significance.)