As many long time listeners and readers know, I am a graduate of Fordham University in New York City. This past Monday, on the occasion of Martin Luther King, Jr., Day, one of my former teachers and current university president Father Joseph McShane sent a letter to alumni about courage. I thought it was worth sharing.
In the letter, McShane recounted a story that one of his great mentors, University of Chicago professor Martin E. Marty told him about having dinner with Dr. King. After hosting a successful conference, Marty and his wife invited Dr. King and his wife Coretta Scott King to dinner to celebrate. They were shown to a banquette in the back of the restaurant, and Marty and his wife attempted to slip into the booth seating on the table to allow the Kings the comfort of the two chairs. Dr. King and his wife stood for a few awkward moments, and then asked the Marty’s if they could possibly sit in the booth with their backs to the wall. After they exchanged seats, Marty asked King why he preferred the less comfortable booth. “I believe that I will be assasinated,” sighed King. “I just want to be able to look the man who is carrying it out in the eyes as he pulls the trigger.”
It gives me chills to write that story. Why? Because that is courage. That is a story of Dr. King choosing the hard right, and standing up for what he believed. As McShane wrote to us Fordham alums, “After hearing that story, I saw him as a prophet who knew full well the cost and burden of the role he played—not for himself but for his community and for the whole nation. A prophet. Not a role one would choose for oneself. Not a cross that is light. Not a cross that is easy to bear. But it was clear that Dr. King accepted the role with grace, with strong and serene conviction, and with deep love.”
I believe that 2021 will hold many difficult choices for all of us involved in youth, high school and collegiate sports, not on the scale that Dr. King faced, but difficult nonetheless. We are still in the midst of the COVID pandemic, and have difficult choices to make as our children return to sports and schools. In some places, their favorite sports are still prevented from playing (in some countries right now all sports are on hold). In others, restrictions make it necessary to play with a mask, or in smaller cohorts, to restrict travel and games, and so much more. Some places allow fans, and others are not (this weekend I drove my daughter 3 hours each way to play a game that parents were not allowed to attend). Some of us care for elderly or immunocompromised family members, and thus need an abundance of caution. Others may be vaccinated or very healthy and not as worried, yet still must respect those that are not. However difficult it may be, we must choose to show respect to the local officials, teachers, parents and coaches who are charged with following local ordinances and keeping our athletes and venues as safe as possible.
Even as COVID (hopefully) winds down in 2021, we will still have many difficult choices to make around sports, issues that existed well before COVID. Parents, do we turn a blind eye to the coach who bullies their athletes, out of fear that they will take it out on our kid? Do we enable organizations to continue business as usual, running adultified programs instead of child-centered learning environments, or do we take a stand, run for the local board, and make changes for the better? Do we let a small percentage of parents ruin it for the rest of us by stalking up and down the sidelines, berating officials, and tormenting players? No, we must start to choose the hard right.
To all the youth sports organizations and athletic directors, you, too must choose the hard right. You must mandate continuing coaching education, well beyond technical and tactical teaching and require your coaches to become better connectors, communicators, and caring mentors. Wins and losses do not make for coaching excellence at the developmental level. You must educate and engage with the parents, the vast majority of whom are great people. Teach them how to help their athletes. Create a culture that is transformational, not transactional. Be a prophet in your own community, demand excellence, and fight for our children’s right to play and learn.
And finally coaches, choose to be the coach you always wish you had. Make 2021 the year you invest in your own personal development. Learn new skills and improve the ones you have, especially the “soft” skills such as caring, communicating, connecting, giving feedback, listening, and the like. Think of a coach you really admire and write down the 6 to 8 characteristics of that coach that made him or her transformational to you. Then ask yourself “which areas that I just listed are my strengths, and which areas need work?” Then improve yourself. You will sleep better, and you will actually win a few more games as well.
This year, I am inspired by the story of Dr. King, the courage he showed, and all he fought for in spite of the cross he had to bear and the prophetic fear that it would all end with an assassin’s bullet. I am also inspired by this West Point prayer that hangs on my wall and I refer to often:
Make us to choose the harder right instead of the easier wrong and never to be content with a half truth when the whole can be won. Endow us with courage that is born of loyalty to all that is noble and worthy, that scorns to compromise with vice and injustice and knows no fear when truth and right are in jeopardy.
I am challenging myself to make 2021 the year I stand up more often, challenge conventional thinking more vigorously, and support the organizations and people that do the same with greater strength, conviction and love. I am committing to choose the harder right and give a voice to our children, who are often the last consulted when we design “quality sports programming.” I hope you can join me on this journey in 2021 and beyond.