This isn’t your father’s football.
In light of a recent federal lawsuit filed by former players and the parents of several other former players against Marlboro High School head football coach Rich Ward, the district and its superintendent, alleging verbal and physical abuse, local coaches said the way the sport has been taught has changed in recent years.
“It’s a totally different game,” said Millbrook head coach Sean Keenan, who said “old-school, hardcore guys” coached him when he played for Our Lady of Lourdes and Marist College in the 1980s. “Society has changed, and the rules have changed and filtered down into football.”
The lawsuit, filed Monday, alleges Ward used abusive, racist and sexist language toward several players, as well as physical abuse.
A 1985 Marlboro graduate, Ward just completed his fourth season at his alma mater by leading the Iron Dukes (11-1) to their second straight state Class B semifinal 11 days ago. As of press time, he had not returned a call seeking comment.
Tom O’Hare played football for John Jay in 1996 and 1997. Now the Patriots’ head coach, he said coaching football is “different now than 15 years ago,” and many of the methods used years ago wouldn’t be accepted today.
“I think the atmosphere and climate have changed,” O’Hare said. “You have to remember this is a school team. It’s academics first. It has to be professional. You have to have boundaries and be smart about what you say and do.”
Keenan said the change in acceptable coaching methods can be attributed, in part, to the rise of both technology and entitlement among young players and their families.
“I think more than anything,” he said, “it’s more camera-phones and recording everything and the ‘lawyer-ification’ of America.”
In recent years, though, there have been incidents of coaches in seemingly every sport, both locally and nationally, who have been accused of crossing the proverbial line when it comes to abuse toward student-athletes.
School officials in Mattawan, Mich., fired their boys basketball coach last spring after he allegedly hurled a ball at a player and engaged in abusive behavior and language.
In September, the coach of a girls volleyball team in Buffalo was placed on administrative leave after allegations of verbal abuse.
She was later reinstated following the pleas of current and former players for the team.
Just two months ago, Ramapo football head coach Duffman Pannell was charged with striking a 15-year-old player in the head with his helmet.
Pawling’s head football coach, Jason Kuhlmann, said he doesn’t approve of a physical style of coaching the game, opting instead to find other ways to get his point across to his players.
“I didn’t like it as a player,” said Kuhlmann, who played at UConn before taking the Tigers’ reins. “I think because of the sport, a lot of coaches feel they have to be big, tough (figures) and hard guys. There are other ways to get that point across.
“I do my best not to emulate that kind of behavior at all.”
Nor does Clinton DeSouza.
After a blowout loss in his first varsity game, his coach brought the 2002 Spackenkill graduate and several teammates into the nurse’s office, weighed them and put them on a diet. DeSouza said the experience left him in tears and “just wanting to quit.”
“I would never do that today,” said DeSouza, who recently completed his fourth year as the Spartans’ head coach. “That’s something that is a big no-no. You don’t judge a kid by his weight.”
He later added: “I know now he had good intentions and wanted me to be fit, but as a kid, I didn’t see it that way, and that’s the thing you have to take into consideration.”
He said coaching football, in particular, “can be a pressure cooker,” but those entrusted with several dozen young players must put their needs and safety — both physical and mental — above all else.
“Nowadays, there’s a lot of pressure. ‘Bully’ is a buzzword. You have to treat the field as a classroom,” DeSouza said. “It’s a tough spot. There’s a lot of pressure because it’s an emotional game. You just want to do what’s best for the kids and see them reach their full potential.”
O’Hare agrees with DeSouza — “The key is you have to remember the athletic field is an extension of the classroom,” the Patriots’ coach said — and said as a result, many, if not all, districts look to employ teachers to run their teams.
“There’s a big push to have educators as coaches,” said O’Hare, adding administrators “love to see educators because they know we have the certification, training, and we spend our day having to conduct ourselves professionally in the classrooms.”
Regardless of who’s patrolling the sidelines, Keenan said coaches must hold themselves to a high standard that reflects well on themselves, their teams and their schools.
“You have to pull yourself back and be a role model for your kids and the community.”