By the Rules

January 29, 2015
What should a coach do when he or she is committed to playing by the rules, but an opponent is not? Here's how you can help.
By Dr. Mike Davenport

Mike Davenport, EdD, is Director of Rowing, Head Coach of Women's Rowing, and Assistant to the Athletic Director for Professional Development and Compliance at Washington College. He writes about professional sustainability for coaches at: and can also be reached at: [email protected].

I remember the look on her face. She came into my office, sat down, and painfully announced, "We lost our game last night. The other team cheated."

This was one of the most honest coaches I know, who never blamed others or blew a situation out of proportion. She was not just venting.

"They broke a conference rule, it gave them a competitive advantage, and I'm not sure what to do about it," she said.

When conversations like these happen, it's very important for an athletic administrator to be prepared. At the heart of the matter is a rule being broken, but there are other issues to consider.

I believe most rule violations are unintentional or a misunderstanding, and thus warrant acting carefully. For example, as a team leader for the 1996 U.S. Olympic Rowing Team, I was questioned by racing officials and the FBI on whether our team's coaches were using radio transmissions to gain an unfair advantage. Even though it was not true (television broadcasting equipment was found to be the culprit), the stigma that we might have even entertained the thought of cheating was a tough pill to swallow.

In many ways, relationships are central to moving ahead when you suspect a violation. Your relationship with your coach, your athletes, and the other program will all be affected. With that in mind, here are six steps to consider when violations by others are brought to your attention.

Step 1: Thank your own coach
Some coaches will take matters into their own hands when they believe an opposing team is breaking a rule. Often this makes a bad situation worse. Your own coach coming to inform you and ask your advice is showing a sign of maturity and trust in you. Therefore, you need to come through for her.

The first part of that is to affirm that you appreciate the coach's decision to discuss the matter with you. "Coach, you did the right thing coming to me," can be important words to voice. Remember, relationships are critical here and you want the coach to know you have her back.

Step 2: Discuss with players
Today's athletes are savvy and know a lot. Continual access to the Internet and social media creates a spotlight that bares all. Chances are, if you know about an infraction, your players do too. And if they don't, odds are favorable they soon will.

We suggest to our coaches that a short, simple statement to players, with carefully chosen words, might be called for. Something along these lines might work:

"I want to let you know a rule may have been broken by the other team in last night's game. Steps are being taken to address the issue. I'll let you know when the issue is resolved, but in the meantime we need to move on, not focus on it, and not be involved in any discussion about it, especially on social media."

Step 3: Contact the other coach
Now for the hard part. Your coach needs to skin her own skunk. Ask her if she is willing to contact the other coach, directly. Let me explain.

You are asking your coach to make a courtesy call to the other coach. It is not about accusing. The purpose is to help a fellow coach and his or her team stay out of trouble.

If your coach has a solid relationship with the other coach, then simple wording for the call might be, "Hi Jane. My athletic director and I had a meeting this morning, and we are concerned that a conference rule may have been broken in last night's game. I want to bring it to your attention so you could address it, and I hope you would do the same for me." Then let the call go where it may.

I know this sounds difficult. However, when done in a positive manner, it can actually be a building block toward a stronger relationship between programs. The important thing here is not to accuse. It must be clear that your coach is trying to help a peer do the right thing.

If you feel that this option should be avoided, or the call flopped, there is a next step.

Step 4: Contact the other team's athletic director
Now the action to take is yours. Place a call or send an e-mail to the other team's athletic director or program director. This is what administrators are expected to do and, again, the focus should be on relationships. This step might get more action in terms of addressing the violation than the coach-to-coach call, but it has the downside of likely putting the other coach in an uncomfortable position. Similar to the coach-to-coach call, I suggest not making any accusations and simply starting a conversation.

Step 5: Report it to your conference
If you decided against Steps 3 or 4, then it's time to contact the governing body responsible for rules violations. This is a serious step that may have ramifications. There will be protocol established for this, depending on the organization, so get ready for possible paperwork and follow up.

There is also the possibility that the friendly conversation with the other school will not resolve the problem. Maybe they say, "Thanks for the call," but the violation continues. In order to support your coach and the integrity of the sport, a call to the governing body is a must in these cases.

Step 6: Be patient
The issue has been addressed, and now it is time to wait. This is not easy to do, but if the wheels have been put into motion, allow time for the violation to be resolved. Remember, the next contest is right around the corner and that is where your coach's focus is best placed.
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