The Final Whistle

22.01.2014

I’ll start this by saying I think ... no, I strongly believe … that I have found a great solution to abusive parents at games of basketball, loud-mouthed coaches pacing the sidelines and being demonstrative and temperamental players who think the world is against them.

Strange things seem to happen when you're on foreign soil. For me, I tend to open my eyes a little more, take in the surrounds, people watch and let my mind wander. Watching how people go about everyday tasks is always of interest and nine times out of ten it makes you appreciate just how good we have it here in Australia.

At every opportunity I also look closely at how sports operate in other parts of the world and the initiatives, ideas and differences they have from what are used to back home, because unlike the differences in general society and living conditions, when it comes to sport we can, at times, be a little slow on the uptake.

I say that safe in the knowledge that we, as a nation, are very good athletes in general and provide great competition in many sports globally, but off the playing arena we are, in many sports, behind the eight-ball. Administratively we work damn hard, but are often under-staffed and underpaid.

Though it's not a pre-requisite for learning new weird and wonderful things, I often find myself looking for something that might, could or will make an indelible difference on the game of basketball. I love the sport and it pains me that we, and I say we as a collective because we are in it together, are involved in a game that has two major flaws; those being a distinct lack of connection from the top to the bottom (and vice versa) and, a cultural problem with poor behaviour and conduct displayed towards officials and each other.

To touch on the first one, albeit very briefly, I’ve said it a hundred times before, and it’s best left for another day to get into at length again, but the disconnect between the elite and grassroots in our game is a massive issue. Our game is rich with talent, participants and passion at grassroots level, but we just don’t have a strong enough connection with our elite leagues – the NBL and WNBL.

Dare I say, but our connection with all things NBA are ridiculous in size to that of our biggest domestic competitions back on home soil.

I know both leagues are working very hard to find a solution to the problem and help build some bridges, so hats off to them and hopefully they can find the magic formula to help fill some stadiums, get the game back on prime time television and inject some basketball personalities back into the community.

Anyway, it’s the second flaw I want to raise, the issue of negative conduct on and off the court that I fully believe is a culture that has been born out of tippy-toeing around the ‘white elephant’ in the room for way too long. That white elephant is the person behaving badly – the person we don’t want to sit next to, or the coach we have no respect for, or the player we think is a spoilt little brat.

Yes, now you’re on the same page. We all know that person.

After spending the best part of a month in the United States late last year I've returned home with something that will absolutely help repair the poor behavioural culture we have in basketball, and I dare say quite a few other sports could learn something from this as well.

However, before getting into the solution, let's open up and talk more candidly about the problem.

Firstly, let’s be honest – how many times have you heard a parent sitting in the stands at a basketball game gobbing off at a referee? You know, that person who thinks that their team, and usually their kid, is hard done by, the referees have no idea what the rules of the game are and, for some ridiculous reason, this genius of a parent thinks they have the right to scream abuse to all and sundry? Yep, you know the kind.

And if it isn’t the ref they want to argue with, they’ll find an opposition parent, or in some cases, a parent from their own team!

The same can be said for some players, and definitely some coaches. Heck, I’m no saint, I’ve pushed the boundaries in the past and copped my fair share of technical fouls for doing so. The key thing here for me is pushing the boundaries. In Australia we tend to do everything and anything we can in sport up until when the official deems we have overstepped the line. Actually, some people don’t even take that as a warning sign and just keep going.

My question is this – isn’t it incumbent on us as the key stakeholders of the game to set, understand and adhere to the boundaries? Aren’t we responsible for setting the culture that we expect from each other, and in so doing, aren’t we then educating the next generation of players, coaches and parents/spectators as to what is and what isn’t acceptable?

Responsibility – it’s a big word that all of us need to understand a bit more. Why are we always trying to overstep the boundary? Why do we push responsibility onto others and think that it is always someone else’s problem or someone else’s fault?

Competitively I fully understand trying to push the limits so far as effort and performance go, within the rules of the game of course, but why do we try and bait the officials, abuse other spectators, heckle and taunt the refs, throw our arms up in disgust at everything that goes against us? I can’t help but think it is a cultural problem and we do it because everyone accepts it as a part of the sport.

I’ve been just as guilty, and on that basis I reflect and ask myself – when I’ve acted like a jerk has it been because I knew I could get away with it or did I want to see how far I could push the boundaries? Probably both to be honest.

Strangely, upon reflection, did I ever stop to think about the game? My role in it, the culture that I was a part of? Don’t get me wrong, yes I have copped a few tech fouls over the years, I’ve never gone further than that, but like me, I know many of you have seen far uglier things. Far uglier.

But, any ugly is still ugly. And I think that ugly behaviour is cultural. We accept it, therefore it is part of the culture we exist in. We may not like it, but we accept it.

Now I've written about this sort of thing before, so please don't think I'm just beating a drum once again. No, this time I genuinely feel like I've found a solution.

Basketball in this country has an inherent problem in that by virtue of it happening at all levels and way too often, we to some degree collectively condone that coaches and players can question calls, and that parents and spectators can be abusive, or in extreme cases, threatening in their conduct. Again, we may not like it, but we accept it.

The very worst offenders might be reported and cop a whack, but there are way too many offenders who get away with way too much.

Every time I go to the USA and coach against high schools across a number of states, I'm always, and I mean always, impressed at the way in which players and coaches just get on with it. Rarely do you see anything but the utmost respect afforded to the officials. It's an impressive sight compared to what I’ve seen back at home on an almost weekly basis.

The referees are a crucial part of the game. So too are the players and coaches. And yes, we also need the parents and spectators to help the game tick along. Everyone has an important role to play. I cannot speak highly enough of the basketball system in the areas of the USA I have visited. The players play incredibly hard, but they are equally as respectful to everyone involved in the game.

Our basketball bodies try to stem the flow of bad behaviour. For instance, here in Victoria it is mandatory for venues to display Codes of Conduct, which extend to players, coaches and spectators. The codes are well written and informative, but they are usually tucked away on a noticeboard and at best they are glanced at. I would even take a stab and say that a very high percentage of parents, probably most players and some coaches have never read them. Never.

It doesn’t mean that the codes of conduct aren’t important, like I said, they are well written and done so with the absolute right intentions. But it’s the delivery of communicating the message that I question? Some people fail to read a stop sign, so what hope have we got getting them to read a code of conduct?

Put up as many signs and messages as you like, some will read them and some will walk straight past them. Put a sign in front of a door and chances are way too many people will move the sign to gain access and not even stop to read it.

The best form of communication is face-to-face. Spoken word. Look each other in the eye. That’s how you communicate. More on this soon.

So back to culture. During my time at Warrandyte I was often asked about the growth of the club and how we did it? My answer was always about the focus we had on culture and it being the highest priority. The fact is that you'll never satisfy 100 per cent of the people 100 per cent of the time, but if you truly provide and display a good culture that encompasses respect for each other, good behaviour and a desire to achieve positive outcomes, well you're halfway there.

Ok, that sounds a bit fluffy I hear you say, but it's true. Good culture is as easy to spread as bad behaviour. It comes down to what is acceptable and what isn’t? Every club has ratbags – yes, EVERY club. Throwing the baby out with the bathwater doesn’t work. That problem you just got rid of instantly becomes someone else’s problem and I think we need to be a bit bigger and smarter than doing that. We need to think about the game at large, not just our own issues.

Back to my trip and that newfound wisdom I spoke of. While I was in New Jersey I participated, as a coach, in a pre-game ritual that involved the referees calling in the coaches and captain/s of both teams. The referees then read out the following message;

"There will be no tolerance for negative statements or actions by opposing players and coaches. This includes Taunting, Baiting, Berating Opponents, Trash-Talking or actions which ridicule or cause embarrassment to them. Any Verbal, Written or Physical Conduct related to Race, Gender, Ethnicity, Disability, Sexual Orientation or Religion shall NOT be tolerated, and could subject the violator to ejection, and may result in penalties being assessed against your team. If such comments are heard a penalty will be assessed immediately. We have been instructed not to issue warnings. It is your responsibility as Coaches and Captains to remind your team of this Policy."

They call this the Sportsmanship Statement and it is mandatory to be read out prior to all contests by game officials to coaches, captains and, in some cases, all team members. It is genius in more ways than one. Sure, they are getting a message across, but more importantly they are teaching the current generation, and the next generation, what isn't acceptable in this game of ours. It's creating a culture, a behavioural culture. An expectation of how you should conduct yourself.

And they are communicating it in person, face-to-face, eye-to-eye. Again, nothing better than verbal communication in person. It’s the best form of communication on the planet.

The simplicity of verbally reading the message out prior to every game means that the message is right there in front of you – not only do you hear it, but you acknowledge it. If someone steps out of line, you, as a leader and having heard the message from the referees, all of a sudden have a responsibility to the game, to your team, and to yourself. You need to step up and set the right example.

I have seen this in action, I have been a part of it, and it works. Referees are treated with respect by players and coaches, as are the rules and conducts of our game. If not, well you know the consequences because they were read out to you at the start of the game. And, these refs stick to it!

Better still, if a parent yells abuse, the referee has a word to the coach and tells him or her to deal with it otherwise there will be consequences. Let your parent know the expectations that we set and all agreed upon at the start of the game. Full stop.

What I liked most about it is that it presented a human element to the game. It stresses the need for good behaviour, to respect the game and to respect each other. And, better still, the captains in particular, as the designated leader of the team, really takes it on board, it is a sense of duty to follow through. It is what being a captain is all about, and that’s a great culture to teach our kids.

And, it takes all of 30 seconds before tip-off. Best half-a-minute this game could spend in created and spreading a good culture.

While I like the message the New Jersey refs use, I would change ours up a bit and make it relevant to our needs and the culture we want to set. I’m sure the powers-that-be could draft something that is applicable, that sends a clear message and empowers those hearing the message to set the right example and lead the way.

I guess what really made the most impact on me, and in turn tells me that this is an absolute must-do for us back here, is the sheer simplicity of it. Don’t worry about sticking a notice up somewhere around the stadium, take the message directly to the people who matter the most – our players and coaches. They drive the game, they set the example, they lead the way.

If they continue to overstep the mark, they most certainly can’t argue that they weren’t told!

Personally I think we should introduce this pre-game message at the start of every game played, no matter what the age-group or level of competition. It might take a while to sink in, but if you want to create the right culture, you have to start somewhere.

Even the under 8s – teach them young and give them an opportunity to take that culture with them through their basketball journey.

The Final Whistle has blown.


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