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Fighting The "Trump Effect" In Youth Sports

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The media has been reporting extensively on what the Southern Poverty Law Center's Teaching Tolerance project has dubbed the "Trump Effect": the fear and anxiety which the President-elect's campaign rhetoric - and his policy pronouncements, especially regarding immigrants and Muslims - appears to be engendering among Latino, Hispanic, African-American, and Muslim children, immigrant children, and children of immigrants, and the bullying, intimidation, slurs, and threats which appear to be increasingly directed at them.

While bullying has a long and sordid history in American classrooms, a November 7, 2016 article in The Nation asserts that the current surge is notable in two respects, both for the similarity of its targets - Muslim students, immigrants and children of immigrants, children of color, girls, and Jews - and the language used against them, leading some educators to suggest a link to Donald Trump and the "degraded course of this election season." 

Much of the evidence that more students are being bullied, harassed, or even physically threatened or assaulted because of their immigration status, ethnicity, religion, disability, sexual orientation, gender or gender identity, is explicitly anecdotal. But the stories "leave little doubt that the [Trump] effect is real and on the upswing," argues the Nation article.

Sadly, it appears that the Trump Effect isn't just being felt in the nation's classrooms. It's also seems to be playing out in my domain of youth sports.

According to a story published on the website, OnlyNews.com, the weekend after the election, a girl's volleyball team from Archer City, TX (about 2 hours north of Dallas) was playing against a team from Fort Hancock ISD in Snyder, TX (a town on the Texas/Mexico border which happens to be 97 percent Hispanic) when students from Archer City starting chanting "Build a Wall!" and holding up Trump/Pence signs, along with large flags emblazoned with the phrase "Come and Take It!" - a reference to the Battle of Gonzales, the first military battle during the Texas Revolution with Mexico.

The Archer City Superintendent, C.D. Knobloch, subsequently apologized to the students and community of Ft. Hancock, saying that "appropriate action" was being taken to address the offensive language. Knobloch nevertheless claimed his students weren't racists, and that, but for the election, the incident "wouldn't have happened," and that "every effort would be made to ensure this doesn't happen again."

While accepting Archer City's apology, Fort Hancock Superintendent Jose Franco said that what bothered him the most was that was "no adults, no officials did anything about it while the match was going on. We come from a very competitive district where there's plenty of trash talk and that's just part of the game, having fun with it, but this is the first time it has ever crossed the line." (By the way, Fort Hancock lost the game. Whether the loss had anything to do with the intimidating racist crowd, it probably didn't help the team focus on playing their best).

Tip of the iceberg?

Unfortunately, if my experience is any guide, the Archer City/Fort Hancock story may be just the tip of a very large iceberg. Since Election Day, I have fielded an incredible number of phone calls and received countless emails from sports parents reporting incidents of discrimination and bullying against immigrants, African-Americans, Jews, and LGBT youth by teammates and coaches. Here are just some of the incidents which have been directly reported to me:

  • A coach's son allegedly informed a boy of Mexican heritage during tryouts for a middle school boy's basketball team that his father would not being selecting him for the team because he could only pick fifteen boys and didn't want to waste one of his picks on a boy who he was sure was going to be sent back to Mexico.
  • A teenage girl of African heritage was not invited to an impromptu pizza party and movie night for her age-group track team this past weekend to celebrate Trump's election.
  • An African-American boy trying out for his middle school basketball team was alleged to have been cut by the coach after he asked the players to stand in a line tallest to shortest and by race, and then excused all but one black player from participating in the actual try- out.
  • Coaches in one Southwest sports league were allegedly told that they might not be able to continue coaching if they could not provide documentation of their immigration status, and that, until such proof was furnished, their kids would not be able to play.
  • After Election Day, a transgender girl on a high school cheer squad was allegedly subjected to repeated taunts by her teammates for wearing an "I'm With Her" t-shirt, teasing the coach reportedly refused to do anything to stop.
  • A Jewish father reported that a swastika was scrawled on a locker at his child's away game.
  • An African-American boy was reportedly punched in the head by teammates on his high school football team and subjected to hate speech, while game officials and coaches allegedly looked the other way.

While I haven't been able to independently verify whether any of these incidents actually occurred, I do know that the parents who called me were genuinely anguished. They were truly heartbreaking for me to hear, especially as I have spent a great deal of my time and effort over the past 25 years, first as a youth sports coach and administrator and, for the last 16 years as a sports safety educator, fighting to keep kids safe, not just from physical injury, but from emotional, psychological, and sexual injury and abuse.

What I found most disturbing about such reports is the number that involve either discriminatory behavior by coaches or their failure to do anything to stop it. "Although plenty of coaches use affirming and encouraging coaching styles, bullying behavior such as demeaning, shaming, and name-calling remains a common aspect of coaching in sports at any level," notes Nancy Swigonski, a physician at Indiana University School of Medicine and the author of a 2014 article on bullying by coaches in the journal Pediatrics.

As evidence, she pointed to a 2011 study in the United Kingdom which found that three-quarters of the 6,000 young adults ages 18 to 22 years interviewed about their experiences in sports earlier in adolescence reported at least 1 incident of emotional harm playing sports, one third of whom identified their coach as the main source of harm, and to a 2005 study - one which I cited in my 2006 book, Home Team Advantage (Harper Collins), and in articles adapted from that book for MomsTEAM.com - finding that 45% of children reported verbal misconduct by coaches, including name-calling and insulting them during play.

Perhaps because the damage inflicted in children who are subject to bullying, or to racial, religious, homo- or transphobic, or ethnic slurs or epithets or threats while participating in youth sports is not obvious, like sexual abuse, or immediately apparent, like a physical injury, its effect is often overlooked and minimized. But the damage is no less real, and, in fact, may be much more long-lasting.

Children involved in sports often make strong connections and develop a special trusting relationship with their coaches and instructors, and if the coaches' power is abused, children can suffer severe psychological injuries that may last a lifetime. In a 2004 study of emotional abuse of elite child athletes in the United Kingdom, for instance, athletes reported that the abuse by their coaches created a climate a fear and made them feel stupid, worthless or upset, lacking in self-confidence, angry, depressed, humiliated, fearful and hurt, and left long-lasting emotional scars.

Preventing abuse: proactive adults needed

Fortunately, from working with sports programs and talking with thousands of parents and coaches from all over the United States and around the world for the past 16 years, and as the head of one of only two U.S. sports organizations participating as a founding member of global coalition of sports organizations committed to implementing the International Safeguards for Children in Sport, spearheaded by Unicef UK, I know that there are a number of steps sports programs can take right now to try to prevent the kind of bullying, teasing, and taunting against Latino, Hispanic, African-American, and Muslim athletes, immigrant children, and children of immigrants that we are seeing from occurring in the first place:

Establish written codes of conduct. After two years of work with our global partners, MomsTeam Institute/SmartTeams has issued guides for viewing on the web and for downloading and printing, for organizations working to implement the International Safeguards and for anyone supporting or governing organizations working with children, including guidelines for creating codes of conduct for staff and volunteers, children and young people, and parents and caregivers.

Be role models. Adult stakeholders must pro-actively encourage children not to bully, tease, taunt, or discriminate on the grounds of religious faith, ethnicity or race, gender, sexual orientation, immigration status, or mental or physical handicap. Every coach needs to make sure that every team event - whether a practice, game, competition, or a team-building gathering like a pizza party -is inclusive, and that a zero tolerance policy for abuse of any kind is strictly enforced. If children cannot look to the nation's leaders as role models, adults involved in youth sports, knowing that children learn by example, need to step in.

Pay attention: Instead of dropping their kids off for practice, parents should stick around if they can; they should encourage their kids to report inappropriate behavior by teammates or coaches - whether it is "locker room talk" demeaning of women or girls, or anti-Muslim, anti-immigrant comments or behavior - regardless of whether it is directed at a teammate or not, and made to feel safe in doing so; they should pay attention to a coach's behavior at practices and games to make sure they are not participating in or tolerating bullying, teasing or abuse of any kind.

Report bullying. Allegations of abuse or discrimination of any kind cannot go unchallenged, unrecorded, or unreported. Such behavior, whether by a coach or a team member, should be reported immediately to school or league officials.

Impose penalties for abuse. Coaches should face consequences for verbal misconduct including demeaning, name-calling, and insulting young athletes.

Establish expectations at a pre-season meeting. When I was coaching boys' soccer, I held a meeting before every season for parents and players at which I set behavioral expectations. Before every practice and game, I reminded players that they would be benched for one week if they directed any kind of abuse toward a teammate, including name calling, shaming, hazing, bullying, or taunting. By constantly reinforcing the values of good sportsmanship and respect towards teammates and opponents, I was able to mold one of my teams into one which ended the season by winning a sportsmanship trophy and becoming sportsmanship ambassadors to a soccer tournament in Scotland.

Now, perhaps more than ever, I believe that coaches, parents, and student-athletes need to actively reject hate talk, bullying, and discrimination in order to keep sports a safe place for our student-athletes and send the message that hate and intimidation simply have no place on the playing fields of our nation. 

Brooke de Lench is Executive Director of MomsTEAM Institute of Youth Sports Safety, Founder and Publisher of MomsTEAM.com, author of Home Team Advantage: The Critical Role of Mothers in Youth Sports (HarperCollins), and Producer/Director/Creator of the PBS documentary, "The Smartest Team: Making High School Football Safer." She can be reached by email @ delench@MomsTeam.com, and you can follow her on Twitter @brookedelench.