"Sportsmanship is the name of the game."
That slogan should not, on its face, be a daring move on the part of a sports organization. But it is.
The statement must now appear in every school gym and playground hosting games for the Slidell Youth Basketball Association (SYBA), a league for children ages five to 18. The niceties of the sign's opening sentence give way to more menacing terms referencing Louisiana state law and threats of arrest. This mandate resulted from SYBA's Sportsmanship Contract, a measure approved last summer and implemented this season that requires everyone participating -- parents, players and coaches -- to pledge to avoid violent and abusive behavior.
Five years ago, such a requirement might have seemed ridiculous, maybe even offensive. Today, SYBA's Sportsmanship Contract is literally a sign of the times. Sports culture has changed dramatically, with senseless, off-the-field violence now regularly making headlines across the country. Sadly enough, nowhere is this more evident than in the games of children, from kids' leagues to high school athletics.
This winter, a Massachusetts jury found 44-year-old Thomas Junta guilty of involuntary manslaughter after he killed Michael Costin, 40, in a fistfight stemming from a disagreement over tactics in a hockey practice in which Junta's 12-year-old son was participating. Less gruesome but closer to home was an incident last month in the Washington Parish town of Franklinton, where three men stormed the court during a basketball game between Bowling Green Academy and Brookhaven Academy. After a technical foul was called and a player ejected for unsportsmanlike conduct, the trio raced to confront referee Bill Brantley.
"I started taking blows to the head and I covered my face and that's when I started taking some shots," Brantley told reporters. "One was standing over me kicking me in the head and another one was hitting me with his fist." Brantley suffered a concussion during the fight, and another referee was also injured.
Even Slidell youth are not immune from this disturbing pattern. Rick Suprean, president of SYBA, says the need for the Sportsmanship Contract became apparent over the course of the 2000-2001 season, which saw three incidents of poor sportsmanship. In one, a fight broke out between two kids with eight seconds left in the game; a parent provoked the fight and was later seen laughing and taunting in the gym parking lot. In another game, an assistant coach, also a player's parent, verbally assaulted a referee by cornering him against a water fountain and shouting insults and threats.
"Disgusting, disgusting stuff," Suprean laments. We agree.
Suprean continues: "If we'd been smart enough, we would have done [the contract] last year before we had problems. We were complacent. We weren't doing anything wrong, but we were naturally comfortable. Then these situations woke us up and we moved to nip the problem in the bud."
Suprean and the SYBA board of directors began working with the law firm Anderson and Anderson, which provided the league with models established by 10 other youth organizations that have enacted policies in the spirit of the Sportsmanship Contract. The attorneys advised SYBA that, based on precedent in Louisiana, state and local laws clearly support such actions being taken by nonprofit organizations providing recreation for kids.
"We took note of what other leagues had done about the problem, and tailor-made a solution to meet our needs," says Suprean. He adds that some groups had taken measures that he considers extreme, including one in Florida requiring parents to attend a three-hour seminar involving psychologists, films and motivational speakers.
The resulting SYBA contract, distributed by coaches to the 1,000 children in SYBA and their parents, details a zero-tolerance policy regarding abusive language and violence. Each participant is required to sign the pledge, which is kept on file at the league office.
Suprean reports the measure was widely supported among parents. "Nobody thought we were overreacting; nobody thought we were going too far," he says. "Most parents were happy to pledge their support, with the only comment being, 'Isn't it a shame that this is even necessary?'"
Clearly, the measure has worked -- at least so far. "With the Sportsmanship Contract in place this past season, we had no incidents," Suprean says. "Not one."
It's time for the rest of the state to follow Slidell's lead. Of the existing models researched by Anderson and Anderson, none came from Louisiana. And despite the success of the contract for the SYBA this season -- and the glowing press the stance has received -- not one other area organization has approached the SYBA to ask about the contract. "We'd be happy to share our information and help to any of the other leagues around," Suprean says. "If it's for kids, then we're all for it."
We encourage area youth sports organizations to take Suprean up on his offer. Poor sportsmanship robs kids of the character-building lessons that only clean competition can offer.