Bill looks to stamp out toxic culture in middle, high school sports — starting with coaches
Two Newton lawmakers are hoping to begin to stamp out abusive coaching practices and the toxic culture of some middle and high school sports teams with a piece of legislation that would help districts emphasize self-awareness, self-control and interpersonal relationships.
"While sports can be a tremendous source of joy for many, the very structure of the sports team institutionalizes a power imbalance between authoritative coaches and voiceless students that invites abuse," said Mitch Lyons, a youth coach and the founder of GetPsychedSports.org and the Social Emotional Learning Alliance for Massachusetts.
Senate Majority Leader Cynthia Creem and Rep. Kay Khan, both of Newton, filed the bill (S 247 / H 516) that would amend the state anti-bullying law by adding a section requiring the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education to publish guidelines by June 30, 2024 for the implementation of a social-emotional learning curriculum for public school sports teams at the middle and high school levels.
Supporters at the End Abusive Coaching Campaign said that the bill is "the first step in providing systemic change to public school sports teams that emphasizes the needs of 21st century children and abandons a sports team model meant for 19th century students."
"If all of behavioral science says that people perform better in a safe and supportive environment, why are we yelling at kids?" Lyons said. "The vast majority of coaches have a good, well-intentioned heart, love the sport, love kids, they enjoy being out there. And it's not what we're talking about."
Khari Roulhac, an athletic administrator who works as the dean of students at Newton North High School, explained what the bill is trying to weed out: "mostly verbal abuse, coaches berating players or talking down to players or asking a player to play longer if they might be injured, that type of thing."
No district would be required to adopt the social-emotional learning curriculum, but the bill says a district "shall consider the guidelines" if it decides to integrate social-emotional learning into its athletic programs.
"It's been disheartening to see a recent string of high school sports incidents involving hazing, racism, bullying, and anti-semitism," Creem said. "This bill will enable interested schools to transform the cultures of their athletic teams, while also teaching student athletes social-emotional skills that will benefit them on and off the field. We've long thought of athletics as a means of imparting important skills and values to young people. This legislation will help ensure that our school sports programs truly live up to that vision."
Supporters of the bill, which was sent to the Joint Committee on Education for public input and review, said they hope it "will eventually spur a nationwide adoption of systemic change to school athletic programs."
Last May, as part of an agreement with then-Attorney General Maura Healey's office, the Danvers Public School District agreed to make significant changes to student programs, harassment and bias policies, and notification practices. This came after players on the high school's varsity hockey team allegedly perpetuated a "toxic team culture" featuring hazing rituals and racist, homophobic and sexually abusive behavior.
The AG said her investigation found that problems within the team persisted because of failures in supervision by its coach, a Danvers police sergeant who resigned from the coaching role in 2021 and was reassigned away from the school resource program as part of the 2022 agreement.
Another recent high-profile incident involved reports of Duxbury High School football players using Holocaust-related terminology to call plays, an incident that state legislators referenced in 2021 as they passed a new genocide education law.
The guidelines called for in the Creem/Khan bill would have to explicitly teach coaches and students how to "create safe, supportive and bias-free team cultures," provide students with age-appropriate leadership roles within a team framework "including empowering students to speak up and report behaviors that are contrary to a safe, supportive and bias-free culture," suggest ways students can build and sustain positive relationships with others, and help students "develop such other skills that will assist them in overcoming physical, social, and emotional obstacles in athletic competition and in their lives, such as emotion management, conflict resolution, ethical decision-making, and problem-solving."
The attorney general's office under Healey released its own guidance a year ago laying out the steps that school athletic officials can take to help keep hate and bias out of their programs. AG Healey also held a number of events on addressing hate and bias in school sports.
Healey's guidance recommended that athletic directors, coaches, referees and team staff be watchful for misconduct by student athletes, parents and spectators; stop problematic behavior when they see it; provide training and programming about bias and hate in sports; and report incidents of potential bullying or harassment to appropriate school officials.
"I'll be the first to say that sports can be an incredibly powerful tool for bringing people together, for bridging the divide that we see too often in communities," Healey said last April. "We know that through team sports, but in recent months, we have seen an infection of bias and hate make its way into places it should not be — bullying of fellow students, inappropriate hazing of teammates, racist, antisemitic graffiti or language directed at peers — and I think it presents us right now with a clear opportunity for us to address this."