Questions of Consistency

By Staff

Athletic Management, 16.6, October/November 2004, http://www.momentummedia.com/articles/am/am1606/wuquestions.htm

Most high school athletic departments have one—a code of conduct that governs student-athletes’ behavior. In addition, every coach has rules for his or her team. But what happens when a coach decides to lay down laws that are different from those in the department conduct code?

Cedarburg (Wis.) High School faced that situation recently when its boys’ basketball coach implemented stricter rules than those outlined by the department. Cedarburg’s code of conduct prohibits student-athletes from drinking alcohol or attending parties where alcohol is served to minors, and an infraction results in suspension from games. The boys’ varsity basketball coach decided to take things one step further, however: Any player caught drinking was immediately dismissed from his team.

The coach followed through on his word, and several players found themselves off the team last season. When angry parents showed up to the next school board meeting, they had a valid question: Would administrators back the coach, or would they enforce their own written policy, which stipulated that the boys should only miss a few games?

Since then, a lawsuit has been filed, and the athletic department has engaged in a full-scale review of its code of conduct. Although Cedarburg Superintendent Daryl Herrick declined to be quoted for this story while the lawsuit continues, the situation served as a wake-up call for athletic directors in neighboring districts.

For two athletic directors in the area, the solution has been to clarify that coaches are not allowed to impose their own rules regarding any issue already specifically addressed in the department-wide conduct code. "If there are athletic department policies in place governing a situation, those are the rules, period," says Charlie Gross, Athletic Director at Homestead (Wis.) High School. "They cannot be modified, and they need to be applied fairly and evenly for all student-athletes." Examples include policies on alcohol and drug use, attendance, grade point average, and transportation to and from away games, according to Gross.

"If there is not a department policy on an issue, it’s up to the individual coach to come up with a team rule," Gross says. "For example, we don’t have a policy on missed practices. Coaches can determine how they want to handle that."

Jack Klebesadel, Athletic Director at Germantown (Wis.) High School, follows the same strategy, and he requires coaches to submit all team rules to him in writing before the season starts so that he can look for potential conflicts. Allowing coaches to apply rules that differ from the department’s is confusing for athletes and parents, he says—and it can actually work against the department achieving its goals.

For example, Germantown’s policy on alcohol use emphasizes encouraging athletes to come clean about drinking behavior so that they can be provided with counseling. Therefore, a coach who instituted a policy harsher than the district’s, like dismissal from the team for a first offense, would actually be working against the department’s goal of identifying athletes who drink, keeping them involved in athletics, and getting them the help they need, Klebesadel explains.

"If we have a department rule on something, it’s because we’ve thought it through and it’s the philosophy of our department that it’s the best way to handle a particular issue," he says. "If a coach wants to institute something that conflicts with our code, I talk him or her through our philosophy on the issue. That way, they understand why we have the rule and they’re able to help underscore our department philosophy with student-athletes. It also ensures that I’m on the same page with the team rules they do have, so that I can back them up with parents and athletes."

Communicating with athletes and parents is an important piece of the puzzle. Gross suggests clearly explaining at preseason meetings which rules are covered by the code of conduct and which areas will be left up to coaches so parents and athletes know up front that you have thought through the issue.

For Klebesadel, the Cedarburg incident also served as a reminder that policies need to be reviewed annually. As a result, he formed a task force with coaches, parents, and school board members to review department-wide codes of conduct and coaches’ team rules.

Gross will also review his department’s conduct code this year, with the help of a student-athlete advisory group that will weigh in on what they think of the rules and consequences. The Highlander Student-Athlete Leadership Team (H-SALT) is made up of junior and senior letter winners who apply for the positions with references from their coaches. Gross makes the final selections after interviewing each candidate.

"A lot of times, codes are written and then not looked at again until something goes wrong," he says. "The code of conduct has such a large impact that it should always be a work in progress. Include all the stakeholders, go through it every year from beginning to end, and ask how each piece is working."

For more advice on writing, reviewing, and enforcing codes of conduct, visit www.momentummedia.com/articles/am/am1005/looking.htm.