Doug Williamson's quest: Helping coaches consider moral and ethical issues

In the 1990s, Doug Williamson was the very successful women’s soccer coach at Nebraska Wesleyan University. One day, as a spectator, he watched the University of Nebraska take a 5-0 lead against a team in its first or second year. To keep the score down, the Cornhusker coach had his women play possession soccer throughout the second half.

After the match, the losing coach was livid. “Don’t ever humiliate me like that again!” she told the stunned Nebraska coach. He thought he had done the right thing.

That’s just one sportsmanship issue soccer coaches face every day. Williamson has spent 40 years thinking about them – on the sidelines, and in his other gig as a United Church of Christ-Congregational minister.

His interest is not just personal. Rev. Dr. Williamson is also the United Soccer Coaches board of directors liaison to its Ethics Committee. He helped revise the organization’s current Code of Ethics. In an increasingly murky sporting environment, he tries to ensure that coaches pay as much attention to ethical issues as to team shape, set plays and periodization.

“There are almost no decisions in life that don’t have a moral component,” Williamson says. “People need a personal code of ethics to deal with the conundrums that come up in life.”

He’s been thinking about ethics since studying for his doctorate at Boston University. Taking courses in church history and social ethics with professors who had taught Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, he realized that nearly every decision, in any institutional realm – political, religious, athletic – involves an ethical realm.

That lesson was driven home early in his tenure as head women’s coach at Curry College. A rash of injuries left him with only eight players for a game on his opponent’s Homecoming Weekend. He made the “brutal” decision to forfeit, understanding the effect it would have on the other team’s big weekend.

In those days, coaches of every New England women’s team met annually. They knew each other well.

The coaches he had the greatest respect for were those who were “thinking about moral and ethical issues,” Williamson says. He heard what they said, and saw how they acted.

Of course, those issues are seldom black and white. Williamson is not sure how to define “gamesmanship,” but like Justice Potter Stewart speaking about pornography, he says “I know it when I see it.”

“They’re legal,” Williamson says of tactics like time-wasting, trash-talking and injury-milking. “But they don’t enhance the game. They may detract from it.”

He knows that some people believe gamesmanship – and all the ethical considerations that go with it – is just “part of the game.”

“I’m a competitor,” he notes. “I’ll do whatever I can to get my team ready to win. But I also have to empower players to make decisions as they go forward. It sounds Pollyanna-ish. But I love the combination of winning games, and helping people do great things in the world.”

Williamson got involved in United Soccer Coaches’ ethics committee in 1999. Laurie Whitsel – the first female president of what was then called the National Soccer Coaches Association of America – wanted ethics to be part of every coaching course. Messiah College coach Layton Shoemaker led a working group, including Joe Machnik and the late Mike Berticelli.

Williamson wrote a 12-point Code of Ethics. The board of directors adopted it in January 2000. Though it never became part of state or regional courses, it is included in higher-level coaching education. And it has never dropped off the organization’s radar.

New issues keep arising: how to deal with concussions. Mental health. The transfer portal. The NCAA’s Name, Image, Likeness (NIL) policy.

And as reports of sexually inappropriate and abusive conduct by coaches surfaced over the past few years, the Ethics Committee faced new issues. They recommended, and the board approved, vacating one award given previously.

“If we say we want to make an impact on the game, and we say to parents, athletes and fans that we are interested in the holistic development of players, then we have to consider how our decisions impact them,” Williamson insists.

He is heartened to see “a cadre of coaches who take this very seriously.” During the pandemic, when United Soccer Coaches pivoted to online education, Williamson and Ethics Committee member Deb Rader added issues like those into coaching courses.

“We were surprised at how much thought went into processing ethical questions,” he says.

However, Williamson adds, “I don’t think this becomes foremost in the minds of most coaches until they’ve gone through a professionally significant event of a moral nature.”

His most impactful moment came in 1987, his last year as Curry’s head coach. Five days before their NCAA tournament game against Plymouth State – a team they’d already squeaked past 1-0, on a late goal – his All-American senior striker told him she was supposed to be in her brother’s wedding that day.

“No one else could play the way she did,” Williamson says. “I wondered, ‘How hard should I push her? Should I tell her not to go, or let her make her own decision?’”

During a long discussion, he laid out the pros and cons. He let her choose.

In the fall of 2021, that team was inducted into Curry’s Hall of Fame. The former player told Williamson, “Going to my damn brother’s wedding was the worst decision I ever made.” She paused. “He’s divorced.”

Curry lost that national tournament match, 2-1. Today, Williamson says, “Telling her not to go would not have been the right thing.”

Would he handle it the same way again, even knowing the outcome? “Absolutely.”

Author Dan Woog is a member of United Soccer Coaches’ Ethics Committee.

3 comments about "Doug Williamson's quest: Helping coaches consider moral and ethical issues".
  1. R2 Dad, March 17, 2023 at 11:32 a.m.

    This is a great column, Dan, would love to see the thinking of others in this sport about moral/ethical issues. Concussion protocols and the health/safety of players, pedo coaches, leagues and their responsibilities to protect player and referee health and safety would be welcome topics.

  2. Mike Lynch, March 17, 2023 at 9:12 p.m.

    Thanks Dan for sharing Doug's ever important work on ethics and sportsmanship.   Pursuing both the point and purpose of sport leads to better games, better performances, even better results. Most of all, sportsmanship and ethics guarantee the future of our game. Without it, like all civilizations in history, they decline until they either change or cease to exist. 

  3. Perry McIntyre, March 22, 2023 at 7:25 p.m.

    Not sure DW is best example of ethical behavior. Personal experience would indicate to the contrary.

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