April 16, 2013

Kudos to @SJEarthquakes and @MLS for zero tolerance on anti-gay slurs (blog post)

This is not a pro-gay-rights blog post, though I support equal rights for all. Nor is it about soccer, although it involves my favorite team.

I read in today's paper that a San Jose Earthquakes player hurled an anti-gay slur at an opponent in the heat of a tight, physical game on Sunday. Afterwards, the player apologized publicly, and I believe he's sincere in his regret. The club's president also issued a statement saying he's appalled by the incident and will redouble the club's efforts to be a diverse and inclusive organization the fans can be proud of.

It's pretty certain the player will be suspended three games, in accordance with MLS policies. Apparently, MLS has been the most strict about this kind of thing among the major sports leagues in the US. And that's the right thing.

Leagues look at this behavior as a risk from a business standpoint. They analyze audience sentiments and demographics and calculate how much revenue they might lose by allowing such bad behavior. And that's a shame. They should put equal emphasis on how such behavior shows up on the training fields of our thousands of youth leagues around the country.

I've been coaching youth soccer for eight years, following my son's age group. He'll be in U15 this year, the first time he'll be playing club soccer with high school kids. (He's going into 8th grade.) I've always managed a clean, fun team. We don't win all our games, but my boys always have lots of fun and improve their skills, and I never have attendance problems at the end of the season. From time to time, I'll hear a little bad language during practice, when they think I'm not listening. I've never punished a player for it, though I always call them out. Fortunately, I've never heard an insult toward another player from one of my boys. It's always been typical middle school playground randomly and somewhat arbitrarily used f-words.

I have been told by my boys, however, that they've been called pussy or fag by opponents. One 11-year old boy told one of my players a few years back, "You're my bitch." The offenders are clever about saying it when adults aren't nearby--in the middle of the field, when the ref is far away. Some kids are coached this way, but most of the coaches I know would be appalled by that. If I heard my players saying it, they'd be pulled out without hesitation.

As a coach, I have some influence over the boys. I can create the right environment, model good sportsmanship. I can lay down the law and demand certain behaviors within my rules. But those things are so much easier when the professionals--leagues, teams, and players--are all modeling the right behavior as well.

Youth sport should be a safe place for children to learn valuable life skills and attitudes. I applaud MLS' zero tolerance policy and the Earthquakes' quick and unambiguous indictment of the player's action. I applaud his immediate apology, and I hope he is sincere. And I hope soccer coaches at all levels around the US take note and make sure they are training up their youth players the right way.

If coaches in high school or club level see a lack of respect and discipline in the pros, they'll feel free to foster that same attitude among the youth. Soccer is a global game, an inclusive game. We need to respect that and use it with our youth. Sport can be such a great learning opportunity. It's sad when a professional league looks the other way and makes it so much harder for coaches.

So thank you, MLS.

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