Thursday, April 4, 2013

Rutgers Basketball - It's Time for Sports Conflict Coaches To Get Busy !

I’m a conflict resolution professional. I’m a lawyer with 30 plus years as a mediator. I teach mediation to graduate students and have trained Appellate judges. I have ombuds training. I’ve worked with sports teams around conflict styles and helped facilitate team meetings to address issues. I’m also a former 4-year collegiate soccer player and big sports fan, and, with this background, let me comment on the Rutgers basketball team situation.

I was on the road yesterday listening to Mike & Mike on ESPN radio discuss the events around Mike Rice, Rutgers Men’s Basketball coach. By now most of us have seen the video, or watched the ESPN Outside the Lines program, or read about the coach’s treatment of the players, or shared some water cooler/coffee table talk. The discussion between Mike & Mike focused both on the specific actions of Rice, on the decision by Rutgers Athletic Director Pernetti to suspend, fine, and order anger management training last fall, and on the perspective of the players (this was before news of Rice’s firing). Mike Greenberg (Greeny) wondered why no player had come forward before and Mike Golic commented that the players are afraid to do so.  Further comments, and I summarize, noted that the players have no power. There is a culture that what the coaches do and say goes and there is no room for “fighting” back.  There is no way to share concerns without putting your role as a player at risk.  Greeny commented that he would step forward and Golic noted that many people, many employees would not bring up an issue for fear of repercussions. 

Golic is right. The most common form of conflict resolution is avoidance.  And in large part, people avoid because they fear. Fear for their job, fear that coming forward will hinder their career, or in the case of an athlete, fear that their career will be ruined. As I listened I also heard no solution offered. So, what can be done?  There is an answer – use conflict resolution skills to create non-traditional lines of communication. This is the need that is articulated by the Rutgers situation. By Penn State. By UNC-CH.

There is no built in avenue or mechanism for student athletes or, for that matter, staff, to come forward with concerns in a private and confidential manner.  There is only fear of repercussion. There is a need for a sports conflict professional, a conflict coach. This might be someone with a sports background and understanding of the issues as a player and/or coach coupled with conflict resolution skills. Perhaps this person might be a mediator or ombuds; however, having the skills is not enough. To be effective, establishing a line of confidential communication is imperative.

For example, an organizational ombuds is a conflict resolution professional connected to a business, university, or other organization with the mission to help resolve conflicts. To be effective, an ombuds must have independence within the institution (must have a direct report to the organizational leadership), must maintain strict levels of confidentiality, must be neutral and impartial, and must be informal.  You can also think of an ombuds as a conflict coach – able to help an individual think through their choices when in conflict. These are the core values and focus of an ombuds that helps establish lines of communication where no lines may exist.

This is the case with today’s student athletes and athletic staff.  First, they fear that making any type of report will directly impact their place on the team, their relationship with teammates and coaches, and their entire future in the sport. They can’t go to assistant coaches or members of the athletic department as any reports to these individuals are not confidential. Second, athletes see themselves as the solutions to problems. Give me the ball. Let me take the shot. I can lead my team. Thus, bringing concerns to the front is not part of a sports culture.  And, most importantly, there is no institution in place to support and protect the coming forward of concerns.  Enter the conflict resolution professional – the conflict coach. Such a role should not be a “direct” reporting contact – it should be informal. Yet the information provided can be directed to the highest levels of authority in an organization while maintaining the confidentiality of the source.

Thus, while many institutions of higher learning have an ombuds, it’s time to bring conflict resolution skills and mechanisms directly to collegiate sports.  This would empower student athletes and staff to solve problems both on and off the field, to help maintain the integrity of a program, to help it win on the field of play, and in developing character and leadership.

It’s time for today’s institutions of higher learning to bring on the conflict coach!