Utah high schools asked to raise the bar on sportsmanship
Jan 15, 2020 01:00PM
By Greg James
Bingham Miner girls basketball coach Charron Mason pleads her teams case to the referee in last year’s state championship game. (photo courtesy of Greg James/City Journals)
By Greg James | [email protected]
A technical foul, 15 yards or a penalty shot are just a few examples of punishments that result from unsportsmanlike conduct. More serious violations can result in fines, suspension or even termination.
The Utah–BYU rivalry again took sportsmanship’s center stage because of several incidents in an early December men’s basketball game at the Huntsman Center. Several Cougar students began singing their fight song during a halftime presentation honoring former and deceased Utah head coach Rick Majerus. The melee that followed included fights in the stands and altercations on the court.
This basketball game is not the first time the two schools have squared off. In 2009, BYU quarterback Max Hall said, “I don’t like Utah, in fact I hate them. I hate everything about them.” He later apologized. Utah head men’s basketball coach Larry Krystkowiak said in 2016 he did not care if the teams ever played again.
College sports participants are not the only poor examples.
In 2009, two Ute Conference youth football teams forfeited all of their games and the conference president was removed after allegations of using illegal players. The whistleblower received threats and called the police for protection.
“You’re an idiot, you have ruined our son’s season and I am going to burn your house down,” prompted that call to the police, all over a youth football game.
Has sportsmanship been lost for a willingness to win at all costs?
“It can be horrific. I had never been so scared,” Peggy Pyle, a county recreation scorekeeper, said about her experience witnessing a brawl at a slow pitch softball game. “One big guy hit another guy in the head with a glass coke bottle. It was wicked crazy.”
The Utah High School Activities Association has recently made an exaggerated emphasis on sportsmanship at its contests.
“The organization is committed to stressing educational and cultural values,” UHSAA director Rob Cuff said. “We stand to improve the participation experience in activities, promote life skills, lessons involved in competitive activities, foster sportsmanship, mutual respect and assist those who oversee high school sports and activities at UHSAA member schools.”
In a City Journal study, 78% of respondents said parents are most responsible for sportsmanship, good or bad.
“Young amateur athletes often emulate what they see being done by college and professional athletes,” West Jordan High School athletic director Carlson Bourdreaux said. “In my view, competition has become more and more about making the other guy look bad, not just about doing your best. We ask our coaches to address sportsmanship and proper behavior with parents at parent meetings. Our objective is to encourage loud, rowdy, positive fan support for your sports teams.”
UHSAA schools have been encouraged to use an initiative called “Do Rowdy Right.”
“We focus on teaching the fans, all fans, not to let the cheering get personal,” Bourdreaux said. “Our students and parents are monitored throughout the contest, and we try to stop negative comments. I am not going to pretend we are always right, but adults are some of the most important people in teaching good sportsmanship.”
Copper Hills High School is among several schools that have implemented ways to improve the fan experience.
“It is difficult enforcing good behavior at sporting events,” Grizzlies athletic director Andrew Blanchard said. “We have student ‘spirit leaders’ that come to all athletic events. They are the leaders of cheers and behavior. Our administrative team works closely with those students encouraging positive cheers. Choosing these leaders is very important.”
The players on the team reflect their coaches.
“This is something everyone can work on,” Cyprus head boys basketball coach Tre Smith said. “I am sure players, coaches and officials have all felt disrespected at times. My biggest thing is wanting to create a sense of great character kids in the program.”
The UHSAA program “Raise the Bar” encourages four ways to improve sportsmanship at athletic events: teach, enforce, award and model.
In the 2018–19 athletic school year, every UHSAA 6A and 5A school experienced a player or coach ejection. The high school program to improve these statistics includes objectives to help each school earn sportsmanship awards.
“Every school can win at sportsmanship,” Cuff said.
All UHSAA members schools were given a banner to hang in their gymnasium. Each banner has empty spaces for gold stars that can be earned by completing the objectives outlined in the program. They include: displaying the schools sportsmanship policy, zero ejections; athletes and parents signing the sportsmanship pledge; and school sportsmanship video contest entries.
During the school year, schools evaluate their sportsmanship application and can mark areas as successful or areas that need improvement.
“We can promote the development of character and ensure the teaching of positive values,” Cuff said. “We must avoid negative behavior and demonstrate respect and appreciation of opponents, officials, fans and coaches. Get loud, have a great time, but remain positive.”
In the City Journals sportsmanship survey, 56% of those filling out the questionnaire said they had displayed poor sportsmanship. Meanwhile, 91% do not think all participants deserve participation awards.
“Disappointment and failure is life,” Blanchard said. “Disappointment can be a useful motivator to athletes. It can help them overcome the negative feelings that come with losing.”
In 2019, the UHSAA changed how teams qualify for the state tournament. The changes sparked a controversy over if all teams should make it or not. Beginning this last fall, all teams make the tournament but are seeded by a ratings performance index.
According to the Cyprus head basketball coach, his team needed to learn something before making the playoffs.
“My first three years at Cyprus, my teams did not deserve to make the tournament, and we didn’t,” Smith said. “I’m saying we did not work hard enough to earn it. I needed to teach my program what hard work was and what needed to be done to have sustained success.”
Taylorsville athletic director Guy Mackay agrees that sports can teach more than winning.
“One of our big problems is that winning is described today only with the final score,” Mackay said. “The problem is the mindset. What is someone trying to accomplish with athletics. Winning is more than the actual scoreboard.”
The sportsmanship epidemic has had on impact on officials. Recently, the UHSAA pled for qualified officials to help support the student-athletes. A shortage of qualified officials has become a national problem.
The state’s sportsmanship initiative hopes to make the vital improvements so high schools can continue to offer athletic competition.
The 2019 6A sportsmanship video winner was Skyridge High School; Alta won the 5A classification.
“Honestly, I feel sportsmanship in Utah is getting better and better every year,” Blanchard said. “The UHSAA works with high school administration and athletic directors to come up with procedures on how to show fans good behavior. There are always a few that never follow the rules, but we now have procedures to help deal with those fans.”