Fly Higher

March 16, 2019

By Amy Bryant

Like many other athletic departments, we recently created a new tagline at Emory University to denote achievement: FLY HIGHER. It taps into our eagle mascot and our long history of being a top NCAA Division III program.

But beyond the catchy wording, its meaning goes a lot deeper. Two years ago, Emory athletics committed to fostering a culture of integrity through a series of new programs. We have always strived to promote ethics through athletics, but we wanted to take it to a higher level. We hoped to redefine success as something intrinsically linked to character.

Our teams have captured 25 national titles and 194 University Athletic Association (UAA) team championships. Close to 1,000 of our athletes have been named All-Americans and 114 have become NCAA Postgraduate Scholars. But we realized none of that means anything unless we consistently uphold ethical standards.

With the aim to FLY HIGHER, we began a series of discussions, trainings, and promotions. The programs have been collaborative, and they reach both coaches and student-athletes. We weren’t sure, at the start, how they would be received, but before long we realized they were having a significant impact in many ways.

Teams are changing their initiation practices of their own accord. Coaches are guiding their student-athletes in a more thoughtful way. And everyone affiliated with Emory athletics has begun discussing difficult issues instead of shying away from them. Student-athletes and staff are learning to pause for ethical reflection and to practice principled action.

SEVERAL CATALYSTS

Throughout 2014 and 2015, there were a rash of media reports uncovering negative activities in college athletics, including at our peer institutions. Across different sports and campuses, teams were found to engage in misogynistic and racist behavior, often as part of bonding traditions. Hazing incidents continued to be uncovered, despite upgraded efforts to erase them.

Then in 2016, during his campaign, President Donald Trump used “locker room talk” as an excuse for his comments about sexually harassing women. As a coach at Emory for nearly 20 years, and a student-athlete before that, my first reaction was that “locker room talk” at our school sounds starkly different than what he described. Others in the athletic department had similar thoughts, which prompted discussion.

My colleagues and I wondered: What if some of our athletes do engage in demeaning, racist, homophobic, or threatening discussion? How would we know? How can we make sure it never happens? Do we need to educate our athletes about the power of their words? Can we make our culture one that creates constructive conversations?

At the time, the university was implementing the Emory Integrity Project, thanks to a grant from the Templeton Foundation, and it seemed a natural progression for athletics to design a complementary program. The university-wide project “articulates integrity as a synthesis of three essential components, referred to as the 3-H model—honor, humility, and helpfulness.” It then attaches a commitment to each word:

Honor: truthfulness

Humility: an awareness that one can be mistaken and therefore needs a relative openness to correction and learning

Helpfulness: integrity, as a virtue, demands action.

The humility component of the 3-H structure resonated strongly with me and others in the athletic department. We all know about coaches who have gotten away with abusing their athletes because they were winning—until a video or enough complaints surface and then there is a shameful and very public firing. But one article about such an incident rocked me more than others because of what the coach said afterwards. He claimed he truly cared about his players and he was just coaching the best way he knew how.

It led me to think about my position as a veteran coach, and about some of my peers. If we are left unchallenged about our work for a long time, how would we even come to the recognition that we should be doing things differently? How would we know we were doing anything wrong?

Continuing education for coaches varies by institution with no governing body setting protocol at the national level. And there’s little incentive to modify what we do when we continue to win games.

We wanted to change that at Emory. We wanted to push ourselves to never feel complacent about our integrity. We wanted to fill the coaching ethics curriculum void. And we wanted our student-athletes to be right alongside us in the process.

Initially I brought this idea to the table, and the initiative moved forward with several coaches and administrators working together, including Athletic Director Mike Vienna, Associate Athletic Director Joyce Jaleel, and Elizabeth Cox, the Liaison from Campus Life to the Emory Integrity Project. The end goal was to keep integrity at the forefront of all Emory teams and for a reflective learning process to permeate everything we do.

DISCUSSING ISSUES

A hallmark of the integrity initiative is a discussion forum called “Locker Room Talks,” with the name being a positive reclamation of the term. They occur during every head coaches meeting, with a minimum of 10 minutes allotted for them. The topics are diverse but always relatable, and we often use examples from peer institutions and current events.

To start, we chose a mild topic for our first forum and I led the discussion. I offered a fictitious basketball scenario in which a foul is called and the coach sees that the referees are confused about who actually was fouled. The coach sends his best free throw shooter to the line even though he knows that a different player (a poor free throw shooter) was fouled.

There was a lot of discussion about what is a coach’s responsibility compared to a referee’s responsibility. Many coaches acknowledged that situations where the cheating line is blurred happen all the time across all sports. In swimming, there is an opportunity to take an extra kick in the breaststroke. In soccer, there’s flopping. In tennis, there are score mix-ups. The discussion was robust. In the end, it was clear that the expectation at Emory is that we (coaches and student-athletes) should always act with the utmost integrity.

After I led a few more Locker Room Talks, other coaches brought issues to the table and led discussions. Along with having one coach presenting, it was important to have a mediator, and our athletic director usually fills this role.

I can’t say that Locker Room Talks were an immediate, across-the-board success. It took a little while to get everyone to embrace them. The time demands on coaches are high—nobody wants to make a meeting any longer than it already is, especially when the minutes spent don’t tally results in the win column. And some discussions have gotten heated, particularly when coaches feel like they are being targeted by the subject matter and have to defend their team.

But by the time we started the second year of our initiative, most coaches began to see the value of the talks and they have become a welcome part of our coaches meetings. Everyone truly does want to act with honor, and we’ve come to realize that humility is an essential piece of becoming better coaches. (Keeping the discussions to a time limit has helped, too!)

Our Head Women’s Volleyball Coach, Jenny McDowell, told me, “Locker Room Talks encourage us to talk about the red flags raised in our minds. Our conversations are not always comfortable, but in the end, we all learn something new.”

Most of the time, our topics are inspired by media reports regarding a situation at a peer institution. Sometimes, they require studying federal, state, and university equity and inclusion policies. Often, they result in coaches collaborating on best practices for managing complex team situations.

Here are some topics we’ve tackled:

- Peer institution teams that have been found to have sexually explicit scouting reports or participate in racist, sexist, and homophobic messaging on social media

- Issues in sexual orientation, focusing on Michael Sam’s experience

- The debate over paying collegiate student-athletes

- Colin Kaepernick and activism in athletics

- Transgender student-athletes and performance legitimacy, with discussion on Harvard transgender swimmer Schuyler Bailar

- Social media team policies

- Mental health at Emory and in athletics, and how to promote a culture of acceptance

- Definitions and terminology pertaining to sexual orientation and gender

- Creating an inclusive environment per the NCAA “One Team” campaign

- Winning coaches being “untouchable,” even at the D-III level

- The place of religion in college athletics and access to our student-athletes for religious groups.

For me, one of the most difficult discussions was about social media and owning what you post. Some believe that young people are going to “say what they say” and we should teach our student-athletes to be very careful about what they place on social media—to make sure nothing is offensive and shines a negative light on our institution. I argued the opposite line. We should be teaching our athletes about the harmful effects of derogatory or hateful comments in any situation and thus convince them of the importance of never doing so, even privately. Then, there is no need to censor themselves regarding what they put online.

In several meetings, the topics have led us to learning more about our legal responsibilities as coaches, especially with regards to Title IX and reporting allegations of sexual assault. A big eye-opener was understanding that it is no longer acceptable for a coach or administrator to claim they didn’t know something negative was occurring. It is our duty to know.

We’ve also come to better understand our university’s polices. For example, when we discussed Colin Kaepernick and collegiate athletes kneeling during the national anthem, we learned that Emory has a policy permitting student-athletes to speak and stand up for their beliefs. As long as it doesn’t negatively impact the regular operations of the university, we can’t tell them they are not allowed to protest. Open expression is superseded only by life, safety, and interrupting university events. 

Next Week: Inolving the Student-Athletes in the Process

 

Amy Bryant has been Head Women’s Tennis Coach at Emory University since 2000. Her teams have won six NCAA Division III titles, with 13 appearances in the team championship finals. She was a member of the NCAA Tennis Committee from 2004 to 2007, serving as chair in 2007, and is currently on the Faculty Advisory Committee for Emory’s Integrity Project. She can be reached at: amy.bryant@emory.edu.

 
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