Liam Day understands the feel good nature of the story of Union High School’s coach Matt Labrum suspending his students, but is it just a quick fix with no real impact?
It seems the football coach at Union High School in Utah, suspended his entire team for off-field issues, including academic and attitude problems and instances of cyber-bullying. Now this is one of those feel-good stories that’s calculated to feed our nostalgia, to recall times when athletes had honor and people stood up for what is right. It echoes movies like Hoosiers and Coach Carter and brings to mind Coach Taylor in the television version of Friday Night Lights.
That’s great and all, but I’m not about to hand Matt Labrum Coach of the Year just yet. First of all, the suspensions for the great majority of the players were lifted after less than a week and those players will not have missed a single game. In fact, Coach Labrum waited until after Friday night’s game to announce the suspensions. If you’ve already made the decision to suspend the team, why wait until after the game? If you want to send a message, you do it before the game, which you then forfeit. Make the pain real.
In accepting the players back onto the team this week, Labrum announced they had met his conditions, which included participating in community service and character education classes. Again, all well and good, but character and discipline have never been built in a class. They are the accumulation of a series of decisions we make every day; it is the cognition that, when confronted with a choice whether to watch TV or do homework, we know what is in our best long-term interest and are able to sacrifice what we want now for what we want most.
This type of discipline cannot be acquired in a matter of days. It takes constant feedback and reinforcement on the part of the adults in a child’s life—parents and teachers. I fear that all Coach Labrum will have achieved by this is to reinforce in his players’ minds that character and discipline require only checking off the right boxes so that you can get back to doing what you want.
I also wonder what Coach Labrum had been doing up until this point. In his book on teaching, Teach Like a Champion: 49 Techniques that Put Students on the Path to College, Doug Lemov writes that, by the time a teacher is yelling at a student in class, it’s too late. The teacher has probably missed anywhere up to 10 opportunities to address the issue about which he or she is now yelling. A teacher’s job—in this case a coach’s—is to address behavioral issues as early as possible. If you let them fester to the point at which you’re screaming or suspending your entire team, than part of the blame is yours.