Bouncing Back After Hazing

By Staff

Coaching Management, 12.4, April 2004,

"It was the worst day of my coaching career—worse than any losing season, worse than any playoff loss." That’s how Art Walker, Jr., Head Coach at Central Catholic High School in Pittsburgh, describes the Friday afternoon in 2002 when administrators came to practice to tell his team they had been suspended from the state playoffs.

Two of Walker’s players had been charged with sexually assaulting a teammate in a hazing incident during a preseason practice in August, and when district officials learned that other team members had witnessed the assault but hadn’t intervened or reported it, they ended the season with the last regular-season game. Rumors circulated that Walker would be terminated or forced to resign.

Instead, Walker stayed and a year later, his team closed out a 13-2 season that included more wins than any other season in school history, a conference title, and a second-place finish in the state tournament. "There were two ways to look at it," he says. "I could complain, make excuses, and look for another job. Or, we could learn from the situation and use it to make our kids better, our program better, and ourselves better as coaches. And we did the latter."

One big step involved establishing a zero-tolerance stance for hazing behaviors and incorporating it into a new student-athlete participation policy. Walker requires parents and players to sign off on the document. "It’s a 15-page document that outlines our expectations for their behavior," he says. "It says that when it comes to hazing behavior, it is not allowed in any way, shape, or form. I went as far as telling them, ‘You’re not to cut another player’s hair even if he says you can.’" And, Walker told his players, the policy extends beyond school grounds—the rules apply off campus as well as on campus.

Walker also stressed that teammates have a responsibility to intervene and report hazing if they witness it. "I tell them that if someone is in a situation they don’t want to be in, you’re not doing your job if you just stand by," he says. "Kids sometimes think hazing is going to create unity on the team. My message to them is, ‘That’s not what brings a team together—what brings a team together is working hard as a group toward a goal.’"

A new mentoring program on the team makes older players responsible for younger players in an "opposite of hazing" maneuver. "We match the freshman players up with juniors and the sophomores with seniors," he says. "We tell the older players, ‘Your job is to help this player succeed on the team, and you’re the person they’re going to go to if they need help.’"

Another important step in the aftermath of the incident involved initiating open communication with his school’s administration, Walker says. The hazing incident, playoff ban, and a subsequent suit by parents who wanted the ban overturned created a local media frenzy. When newspapers and radio talk show hosts speculated that Walker would be fired or asked to resign, he refrained from commenting publicly. "Instead, I met with the athletic director and the administration," he says. "I was completely honest with them, and they told me that they trusted my judgement, I still had their full support, and my job as coach was secure. Once I knew I had that, I started focusing on getting us back on track."

Walker’s strategy was to put all his energy into focusing his team on the next season. "I told the team that we weren’t going to dwell on the past," he says. "If a player brought up 2002, I told him, ‘Hey, that’s from last year’s situation. If you want to talk about last year, you’re going to have to go find somebody else to talk to, because this team is about 2003.’

"I just kept repeating that message over and over," he continues. "We talked about what we had to look forward to, about not taking this new opportunity for a great season for granted. I probably threw out more cliches than any other coach in history, but I meant all of it."

When the fall rolled around, Walker used pre-game speeches to underscore the theme of positive team building. "Before each game, I spoke to them from the heart," he says. "I told them there weren’t going to be any star players and there weren’t any players we could afford to disregard—we had to do this together."

Walker knew his message was getting through when one of his players used a college admissions essay to write about the cohesiveness on the team, referring to it as a "band of brothers." "This team went as far as we did this year because they were able to turn what happened in the previous year into an understanding of what it really means to be a team," Walker says.