When high school coaches across New Jersey raise their voices at practice or punish players with wind sprints this year, the message might not be the only thing they worry about.
They might also fear for their jobs.
With the Anti-Bullying Bill of Rights Act in place and memories of the Mike Rice coaching scandal at Rutgers lingering, the line between motivational coaching and abusive tactics is blurrier than ever in high school sports.
Shout at a player in front of teammates, hold a kid after practice for extra work or bark profanity and some parents could say their child is being bullied and prompt an investigation by the state. But use the same approach and others could see it as simply good, hard coaching.
Officials from the state’s governing body for high school athletics say they’re fielding more complaints about coaches than ever before, while some coaches say the recent emphasis on bullying has allowed vengeful parents angry over playing time an easier avenue to go after their jobs.
It begs the question: What is “normal” coaching in today’s high school sports?
“Right now the lines are really blurry,” said Steven D. Farsiou, an Annandale-based attorney who has represented coaches accused of bullying. “It’s a scary time. Coaches are afraid to do certain things they would normally do for the better of the team because they’re afraid they’re going to get sued.”
Former Somerville High football coach Greg Arakelian was accused in 2011 of bullying a player and jeopardizing his college recruitment; Voorhees baseball coach Chris “Spark” Mattson was accused this year of grabbing a player by the neck and harassing another student; and last month five Cedar Grove High football coaches were suspended for allegedly singling out and bullying a player.
Recently, a state superior court judge dismissed the lawsuit against Arakelian brought by the father of the player, and Mattson was initially reappointed as coach following an investigation by the attorney from the North Hunterdon-Voorhees school board. Mattson was recently replaced as baseball coach at Voorhees by Cory Kent..
Meanwhile, in the college ranks, Rice, the former Rutgers men’s basketball coach, was fired last year after videotapes of him calling players homophobic slurs and throwing balls at them in practice emerged; Rutgers men’s lacrosse coach Brian Brecht was suspended over allegations of verbal abuse; and Seton Hall University softball coach Paige Smith was accused by players and parents of bullying, placing sports ahead of academics and threatening to revoke scholarship agreements made by her predecessor.
Rutgers investigated Brecht and found he had used inappropriate language and acted unprofessionally, but the instances were infrequent and he was reinstated as coach less than a month after being suspended with pay.
Smith, meanwhile, was not publicly reprimanded.
“It is definitely a harder era to coach in, without question,” said Wayne Hills and Wayne Valley interim athletic director Mike Miello, who is also a former longtime high school and college football coach. “Today the coaches are faced with a much greater challenge because of the sensitivity. They have to evolve and change with the times. They don’t even have a choice. They have to.”
The Anti-Bullying Bill of Rights Act was enacted in 2011 in response to the suicide of 18-year-old Rutgers student Tyler Clementi. Clementi’s roommate and another Rutgers student were charged with using a webcam to spy on Clementi during a romantic encounter with a man in his dorm room days before his suicide.
The law provided framework to support the prevention, remediation and reporting of harassment, intimidation and bullying in schools, and makes clear that bullying can also come from adults and coaches.
A year after the law went into effect, tapes of Rice verbally and physically abusing players at practice came to light — a national scandal that prompted an overhaul of the Rutgers athletic department and shined the spotlight on coaching tactics.
“The Mike Rice thing opened the box for parents,” said Nancy Williams, now in her 44th year as field hockey coach at Shore Regional High. “If they want to get rid of the coach they can band together and say, ‘This coach is being verbally abusive.’ Parents can take advantage of it because everybody’s scared of the harassment and bullying.
“At Shore Regional I’m the only (female) head coach because the females don’t want to coach. They don’t want to be involved with problems of parents complaining about this kid not playing and that kid not playing. Coaching as a whole in high school is becoming very different than it ever was.”
New Jersey State Interscholastic Athletic Association Executive Director Steve Timko said he receives “30 to 40 percent more phone calls from parents” complaining about coaches now compared to when he started with the organization 13 years ago. He said most involve concerns about players who were cut or allegedly aren’t getting a fair chance from the coach.
Emily Kline, a softball and tennis player from Park Ridge High in Bergen County, said she has noticed parents attempting to remain closely involved in their child’s athletic pursuits at the high school level.
“When we’re younger it’s different because your parents are coaching you,” Kline said. “When you get to high school you do see parents trying to get involved. I don’t really see that as their area. I think they should let it go considering it’s high school.”
Many coaches and athletic directors say the days of the grizzled coach grabbing his players’ jerseys and spewing profanity are outdated and ineffective. Other practice staples of yesteryear such as limited water breaks or the brutal football tackling drill “Bull in the Ring” — in which a player’s name is called, his teammates surround him and he could be hit from any direction — are also no longer used, coaches say.
But some parents do see value in discipline and consequences.
“Kids need to be held accountable,” said Barry Inamoto, whose twin daughters, Caitlin and Jennifer, played softball for North Hunterdon the past three seasons. “It’s the coaches’ job to hold them accountable for their actions. So do they play fair? Are they a good sportsman? And if not, there need to be consequences. If you made them run a couple laps, that’s fine. If you unfairly single them out and yell at them then I have a problem with that.”
Some coaches wonder where the line is drawn.
St. Joseph’s of Montvale football coach Tony Karcich, legendary Mountain Lakes boys lacrosse coach Tim Flynn and many other coaches across the state at times stop practice when their players aren’t focused and have them run conditioning drills until they’re ready to give better effort.
In Mountain Lakes, Flynn employs a 10:30 p.m. curfew the night before games and calls his players to make sure they’re home.
“In some places if you tried to do that you’d get run out of town,” Flynn said.
Other coaches say they no longer make their players run as punishment — either out of fear of complaints from parents and administrators or because they don’t feel today’s high school athlete will respond.
“I don’t want to be a fear-based coach,” said Ridgewood girls soccer coach Jeff Yearing, who’s been coaching 40 years. “I don’t want to intimidate anybody because if you do that the kid’s going to withdraw. Not many kids respond to that kind of coaching. Today kids are a lot more cerebral and they want to be taught and they want to be told.”
Yearing said his coaching mantra today is: “Tell, don’t yell.”
Kline said she thinks most athletes understand hard coaching and using conditioning as punishment so long as it’s for mental mistakes and not physical errors.
“It’s good to have some discipline,” Kline said. “You don’t want anyone too hard on you. But you need structure. I think that’s very important in coaching.”
In urban communities, coaches said the tactics sometimes need to be different. In Perth Amboy, football and wrestling coach Mike Giordano said some of his athletes have never been seriously disciplined before getting to high school because of a lack of structure at home. He said some parents are pleased when he and his coaches are tough on players.
“A lot of our kids, we are the parents to them,” Giordano said. “We are the first discipline a lot of our kids ever get. Parents have said that to me, ‘Thank you for what you’ve done in guiding my son because I couldn’t do it myself. He needs to get it from you.’
Nearly every coach admits to occasionally cursing or yelling at a player in practice. They say it can be a difficult dance between preparing their teams for intense games and being too hard on their players.
“There’s a fine line sometimes in disciplining your team and challenging your team to get to another level,” Karcich said. “Even in conditioning. Kids get tired and they want to stop and you have to push them to another level. When kids are going through it, it’s tough. But when it’s all said and done, most kids appreciate being pushed because you find out more about your inner self having been through that than if somebody does not push you or demand your best.”
Coaches agree that times are changing, forcing many to temper their tactics or at least be more aware of today’s high school athlete. Most say that when they yell at a kid in practice, it’s important to pull the same player aside later, explain why it happened and give them encouragement.
And when all else fails, many coaches said they just think of their own children.
“I always use the simile: Treat your athletes as you would want your children to be treated,” said Nutley athletic director Joe Piro, a former football coach. “It can’t get any simpler than that.”