Joint initiative: Leagues work
toward better behavior in soccer
One of Division III’s oldest conferences paired up this fall with one of its newest to urge both leagues’ athletics directors, coaches and officials to take steps toward improving sportsmanship in soccer – and those conferences’ leaders already are seeing signs that the initiative is changing behavior.
Dan McKane, executive director of the 88-year-old Minnesota Intercollegiate Athletic Conference, and Corey Borchardt, commissioner of the fledgling Upper Midwest Athletic Conference, jointly signed a letter in August laying out a “three-prong approach” that calls for athletics directors and coaches to assume more accountability for halting poor behavior and instructs officials to deal firmly with violations during competition.
“Those three groups, which have the most contact with the issue, have to play a significant role,” says Borchardt, who approached McKane last summer shortly after being named UMAC commissioner with a proposal to reverse what both agree is a growing problem not only regionally but also nationally.
“While sportsmanship is important in all of our sports, and certainly a priority for Dan and me throughout all our sport offerings, soccer was a sport that stood out,” said Borchardt, who is in his first year as commissioner of the UMAC, which has existed in one form or another since 1972 but just became an active Division III member this year.
“Our student-athletes were exhibiting, unfortunately, negative verbal exchanges with officials and with opposing student-athletes that, to be honest, is not tolerated or accepted in other sports. I’ve sometimes seen soccer student-athletes say things to officials that in basketball would immediately draw a technical, if not ejection.”
While Borchardt was responding to UMAC athletics administrators’ concerns about student-athletes’ behavior on the pitch, former soccer player and coach McKane’s attention was focused more on MIAC coaches – and the degree to which berating officials had come to be seen as simply the nature of the game.
“I have a soccer background, and had thought, it’s just part of the game,” said McKane, a graduate of MIAC member Gustavus Adolphus who also once directed marketing and ticket sales for a professional soccer team. “But I had an intern (Kelly Anderson Diercks, now assistant athletics director at MIAC member Augsburg) who, over the past couple of years, would go to the games and then say, ‘This is appalling. I don’t know how people are getting away with it.’ ”
As a result, two concerned conference executives whose offices are in the same city (St. Paul, Minnesota) found not only common ground, but realized they shared a means of addressing the problem jointly in their leagues.
“First, Corey and I have a very good relationship, and second, we use the same officiating pool,” McKane explained.
Both conferences employ officials from the Minnesota Intercollegiate Soccer Officials Association. Also, because of the leagues’ proximity, most MIAC and UMAC schools play nonconference games against members of the other conference, and therefore see MISOA officials on the field at most of their games.
“Having the same group of officials, and often interacting with each other, you know that having something accepted in one game and then not accepted or given leniency in another game a week later certainly doesn’t lend itself to long-term improvement,” Borchardt said. “I thought we needed to team up with the MIAC and with the officials’ association as a starting point.”
The August letter instructs MISOA officials to:
• “Decrease the leniency and providing of additional warnings prior to the giving of yellow and/or red cards.
• “Do not tolerate swearing or verbal abuse by student-athletes and coaching staff members.
• “Firmly address unsportsmanlike behavior and negative on-field actions by student-athletes and/or coaches, knowing you have full support of the commissioners of both the MIAC and the UMAC.”
But the initiative doesn’t stop there.
Administrators and coaches
“The student-athlete needs to be accountable to the head coach, and the head coach certainly needs to appropriately handle student-athletes who are exhibiting this type of behavior, and then certainly the head coaches also need to be responsible and accountable to their athletics directors,” Borchardt said.
“If proper institutional control – including punishment and reprimand – isn’t happening, what good does an initiative or focus have if there isn’t an accountability factor.”
McKane suggests both leagues already have a willing partner in the initiative among athletics directors.
“We’re looking for their support, and most of them had said, we really feel there is a decline in sportsmanship in soccer, and we want to have it addressed,” he said.
The August letter asks athletics directors to:
• “Consistently monitor sportsmanship and behavior exhibited by soccer student-athletes and coaching staff members toward officials and opposing student-athletes during competition.
• “Hold the head coach and other coaching staff members accountable with discipline and reprimand as deemed appropriate for verbal abuse of officials and unacceptable antics displayed toward officials.
• “Work with the head coach to discipline, as deemed appropriate, those student-athletes who verbally abuse officials and/or display unsportsmanlike behavior toward officials and opposing student-athletes.”
“We’re trying to put a little bit of the emphasis back on them – you guide your coaches and explain to them the values of sportsmanship, and why this directive is coming out,” McKane explained.
While athletics directors naturally might be receptive to that role, McKane concedes that coaches – at least in his own league – have shown skepticism about the initiative.
As a former player and coach, he understands their perspective. But as a conference administrator, McKane worries that permitting current behavior in soccer to continue as an accepted part of the game threatens the sport’s future.
“I’m not seeing as many young soccer officials coming out of college, and I think part of that is, they see how their coach treats officials,” he said. “As much as I want to see them step into officiating, I don’t blame one young person for not wanting to step into that role.”
The August letter asks head coaches to:
• “Consistently monitor sportsmanship and behavior exhibited by student-athletes toward officials and opposing student-athletes during competition.
• “Hold student-athletes accountable with discipline and reprimand as deemed appropriate for verbal abuse of officials and unsportsmanlike behavior exhibited toward officials and/or opposing student-athletes.
• “Consistently monitor other members of the coaching staff (including assistant coaches) for verbal abuse of officials and unacceptable antics displayed toward officials, with reprimand and discipline as deemed appropriate.”
Changing behavior, not soccer
Borchardt doesn’t have the same background in soccer as McKane, but suggests his colleague’s knowledge of the game is helping shape an initiative that seeks to improve behavior without changing the game itself.
“Dan and I are very careful to note, and we’ve tried to express to the coaches, that our initiative is not about eliminating hard play or yellow cards – they’re certainly going to come,” Borchardt said. “As a coach, you’d probably expect that your team is going to have some yellow cards, if they’re playing hard and intense.
“We’re not attempting to change the game of soccer or eliminate the intensity or pure (physical aspect) of the game, but what that’s creating is situations and interactions where either there was a call or wasn’t a call (by officials), leading to the dissent and to verbal abuse of the officials, or to negative interactions between student-athletes.”
McKane wants coaches to focus more on coaching and less on interacting with game officials.
“I did receive significant resistance from coaches when the letter first came out,” he said. “I think they were just used to (the behavior toward officials) – it was the norm in soccer. So we had to change the culture, to get them back into saying, this actually is not appropriate conduct for a coach – in this sport or any sport.
“It will take some time, but I think we’re slowly getting there – to having them focus just on coaching.”
In no way do McKane or Borchardt single out coaches and players in their own leagues as worse than counterparts in other leagues in displaying sportsmanship, and they believe that other leagues also are addressing the problem in various ways.
Both point out that sportsmanship is a key component of the Division III philosophy statement, and therefore as leaders of conferences that are committed to upholding the tenets of that philosophy, they feel an obligation to serve as advocates for that position.
“Whether it’s soccer, volleyball, basketball or softball, this is rooted in our believing and buying into the Division III philosophy encouraging the development of sportsmanship and positive societal attitudes in everyone – student-athletes, coaches and administrators,” Borchardt said.
As the end of the current men’s and women’s soccer season approaches for MIAC and UMAC teams, McKane and Borchardt both see encouraging signs that the initiative is having a positive impact.
“Much of it is observational,” McKane said. “But I’m getting officials coming back to me and saying, ‘Hey, it has been better this year. I haven’t had to deal as much with an unruly coach.’
“Visually, being at contests, I can see that people are focusing on coaching, rather than focusing on working over an official.”
Borchardt sees athletics directors and coaches cooperatively addressing sportsmanship issues “proactively rather than after the fact” – and passing the message along to student-athletes.
“There certainly are still peaks and valleys in the season, and we’ve certainly still had a few incidents that you’d like to not have to deal with,” he said. “But all in all, looking at our eight men’s teams and eight women’s teams and their past history, I can confidently say in my league that there has been improvement, and I hope we’ll continue to see that.”
© 2010 The National Collegiate Athletic Association