If you have any interest in high school sports, this story deserves your attention.
It centers on Tom Mihalovich, who on Wednesday was fired as the Des Moines Lincoln football coach after 12 years. And it’s one that we can all learn from, because it has so many layers. From students’ use of social media to coaches’ behavior to proper punishment of athletes to parent involvement to school board involvement — it covers all those.
Here’s a quick synopsis of the story:
It began in early September, when Lincoln non-varsity football player Dante Campero posted the following comment about the Lincoln varsity team on his Twitter account:
“That’s why I don’t go to the Lincoln game, because they get (expletive) destroyed by anyone whose half decent.”
Upset about the comment, the coaching staff made Campero address the team and then run as punishment. The severity of the punishment was disputed by Campero’s parents and the coaching staff, and Campero’s parents filed a complaint with the school district.
A Des Moines Public Schools investigation concluded that Mihalovich violated policies for bullying, harassment and corporal punishment. The report also included a number of other alleged incidents involving Mihalovich and the Lincoln staff. Mihalovich disputed many details in the report.
On Wednesday night, in a heated and open termination hearing with many Lincoln football players in attendance supporting him, Mihalovich was fired by a 4-2 vote.
With the Internet at everyone’s fingertips, it’s easy to find out more details to the story. Obviously, there are many more. That’s not the purpose of this column. I’m more interested in what we can all learn from this.
Let’s take a closer look, from each interested party’s perspective:
Starting with the coaches, this should be enough to unnerve them. Not saying they should necessarily change their behavior, but they should constantly be asking themselves if their methods are appropriate. Mihalovich claims to be an “old-school” coach, but enough people in positions of power believed those methods crossed the line of decency and he no longer has his job.
What punishment is too harsh? If Campero was simply being asked to run extra, I don’t think that even borders on cause for firing. If we plan to yank away that much control from coaches, the profession is going to crumble quickly. Coaches will find other things to do with their time.
It’s when physical punishment goes beyond excessive, or when athletes’ safety is endangered, because of lack of water breaks or extreme heat or other variables, that those actions come with consequences.
So, was the board’s decision a blow for all coaches? I think you’d have to say yes. But on the other hand, if it forces coaches to police themselves more closely, perhaps it can have some benefit.
What then can parents take away from this? That’s up for debate as well, but I can tell you that I side firmly with the coaches in most coach-parent arguments.
In 20-plus years of covering high school sports, I can tell you there is still far too much parental involvement, more now than ever. I say that because the overwhelming majority of coaches I deal with have their athletes’ best interests at heart. They may not communicate that the best at times, but in the vast majority of situations when a parent gets involved, it makes the matter unnecessarily worse.
The coaches run those practices every day. They know who deserves to play and who doesn’t. They know who’s being a good teammate and who isn’t. And almost all of the time, if they’re singling out your kid for doing something wrong, it’s for a legitimate reason. It’s not because “they don’t like my kid.”
Finally, to the athletes. Watch what you say. Watch what you post on Facebook and Twitter. Remember that your coaches want you to succeed. Listen to them, and don’t complain to your parents every time something doesn’t go your way.
I don’t know Tom Mihalovich. I don’t know for sure if he should have been fired or not. But his story should speak to all of us.
Coaches, look yourselves in the mirror frequently. In order to get the most out of your teams, you often have to do things that may not fit neatly into a school policy book. We get that. But don’t abuse that power. Make sure your athletes understand why you’re getting on them. And don’t cross that line. Your gut will tell you when you’re doing that.
Parents, most of the time you want to take action, you shouldn’t. I can’t tell you how strongly I feel about that. I’m not saying you should never speak up. But your kids make mistakes. They’re human. Don’t automatically take their side.
Athletes, do the right thing. Don’t bully your weaker teammates. Don’t gossip about them. Understand that athletics aren’t supposed to be easy. If they were, we’d all be on “SportsCenter.” Just quietly keep doing the right thing and you’ll eventually be rewarded, one way or another.
This is a complex matter. There are no easy answers. But let’s all strive to be better.
I don’t want to be writing the western Iowa version of the Tom Mihalovich story.
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402-444-1055, email@example.com; twitter.com/KWhiteOWH