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'You don't yell at people to get results': Mass. bill aims to change culture of school sports

High school athletes from around Massachusetts competed this winter at the MIAA Division 5 Indoor Track & Field Championships at the Reggie Lewis Athletic Center in Boston.
Kyle Grabowski
Daily Hampshire Gazette / gazettenet.com
High school athletes from around Massachusetts competed this winter at the MIAA Division 5 Indoor Track & Field Championships at the Reggie Lewis Athletic Center in Boston.

Massachusetts state lawmakers on Tuesday will hear testimony on a bill looking to change the culture of sports in public schools. If it passes, "An Act to remodel public school athletics through social-emotional learning" would amend the state's anti-bullying law.

School districts can opt in, or not.

For years, Mitch Lyons and Khari Roulhac of the non-profit Get Psyched Sports have been advocating for a bill of this kind. Lyons has been a public school and college basketball coach. Roulhac was an athletic director in the Boston Public Schools and at the college level. He's now dean of students at Newton North High School.

What they want, they said, is to see coaches trained and held accountable — like any other licensed school professional.

Khari Roulhac: What we're seeing on the education side is the curriculum and the evaluations that hold teachers accountable for what happens in the classroom. You'll never see an English teacher screaming in the face of a student about Macbeth. But you'll see some of those things in the coaching roles.

Jill Kaufman, NEPM: If you could clarify, some coaches are hired by the district? Some coaches are hired to do a specific sport?

Roulhac: Districts do it differently. Smaller districts might allow the athletic director and the building personnel to do all the hiring themselves. Larger districts, it might be a larger operation.

And there's certification for a coach of some kind, like a teacher?

Roulhac: There are some certifications for coaches. But again, coaches aren’t held accountable and the evaluations don't speak to what we're trying to establish, which is just — at minimum — a safe and positive environment.

Say a little bit more about what it is you are trying to do around the culture of school sports, that is, about coaches but also about players.

Mitch Lyons: There are two pillars to the model of a sports team. They are, a coach has all the power and students are voiceless. Of course, that power imbalance invites abuse. So we're looking at it more systemically and saying, "What could be changed to change the problems in sports, including abuse, hate, bias, negative cultures?"

So a written curriculum that will change what is taught on the team, including addressing positive team climate the way they address [it]in Massachusetts — the Safe and Supportive Schools Framework — why can't that be applied to teams as well? So we're asking that the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education (DESE) — which is our department of education in Massachusetts — publish guidelines for the implementation of a social-emotional learning curriculum on sports teams.

OK, so what is a social-emotional learning curriculum? Because I'm sure there are guidelines for coaches of some kind. But what is this? What's different here?

Lyons: Teaching explicitly how to create safe and supportive and bias-free team cultures, provide age-appropriate leadership roles and making decisions and carrying out responsibilities, and develop other skills such as emotion management, conflict resolution, ethical decision making and problem solving.

And the wonderful thing is, this can be taught right on a sports team, and this would be a way to actually aid our efforts for emotional well-being for our children.

Where does the bill go if it were to pass? This is not a mandate. These are suggestions.

Lyons: A school district, they look at DESE’s advice as to how to implement such a curriculum. That would have to be with the athletic director and then the athletic director would have to evaluate coaches based on whether they modeled and taught how to do these various skills. And if that happens, really absorbing the science — like sports psychology, like social emotional learning, like behavioral psychology. All of these have grown in our knowledge, but sports has not progressed to the rest of school.

And so, that's what we're trying to do. And the sports culture, of course, is not that interested in changing the status quo.

Roulhac: We've been at this for a while now. When I met Mitch, actually, I invited him into my high school. I was the athletic director, and I had the authority to make sure that my coaches were following the plan and showing up and doing all the different things we're asking them to do. But there were some pushback there, and statewide there was pushback, with what we consider the old guard of how athletics had been run.

I would say it goes district by district, and a more progressive district is more inclusive by nature and these things are woven into the fabric of what they're doing. And districts that aren't so progressive, you know, don't even want to have the conversation.

When it comes to what we see happening in other states — not in Massachusetts, by law — that students who are transgender are being banned from the team of the gender they identify with. But I imagine that is another level now of what the dynamic could be between a coach and a member of a team.

Roulhac: Absolutely. And I happen to be in a district that does great with diversity and inclusion here in Newton, Massachusetts. Just being here, I'm aware of other districts who aren't. It's really, it's very blatant in the districts that don't necessarily include those different groups.

If this legislation were to go through, what improves?

Roulhac: So in my view, districts now have a guide, and that's a starting place. Districts who adopt will now have a tool to share with their coaches, so that everyone is playing from the same playbook. Good coaches are already doing this, and good coaches are getting results already in real time and have been for years. And so, we aren't asking them to do anything extra. We're asking them to just look at it a little differently.

Lyons: The only difference is that students [would] know what coaches are supposed to be doing. That's one of the biggest fears of players — what's the coach think? What is he doing? How will he react — or she? Are they going to yell and scream at me? Bang the lockers? I've been in all of those places.

I mean, [social-emotional intelligence] is the way you are with people, basically. That's what SEL is. It's the way you treat other people with kindness, respect, inclusivity, that this is the way you get ahead in the world. You don't yell at people to get results.

Jill Kaufman has been a reporter and host at NEPM since 2005. Before that she spent 10 years at WBUR in Boston, producing "The Connection" with Christopher Lydon and on "Morning Edition" reporting and hosting. She's also hosted NHPR's daily talk show "The Exhange" and was an editor at PRX's "The World."