by George Gross, Jr.
Kill a fly with the proverbial sledgehammer?
No amateur coach would admit it possible of him or herself. Yet that is what appears to have happened at the World Aquatic Championships in Berlin in August. Don Talbot, head coach of the men’s swim team, backed by other coaches and officials, sent swimmers George Nagy, 21, and Jay Tapp, 18, home early for drinking and breaking curfew.
According to the two competitors, they did not miss curfew and had only one beer with their dinner. Nevertheless, they were guilty of breaking a team drinking rule and deserved to be punished.
What chafes the interested observer, in particular us athletes, is how they were treated and their subsequent punishment.
Arbitrarily confined to their rooms without a hearing, not allowed to telephone relatives who were in Berlin, then whisked off to the airport at 5 the following morning, the two were not given a chance to plead their side of the case.
As part of a society which prides itself on justice, it is disconcerting, at the very least, to find two people not only not “innocent until proven quilty” but pronounced quilty without recourse.
At any major competition, the final authority on disciplinary measures, such as sending athletes home, is the competition franchise holder. (At the Pan Ams and Olympic, it is the Canadian Olympic Association). In this case, it’s the Aquatic Federation of Canada. The authority of the franchise holder is usually vested in the Chef de Mission. Although the coaches treated the two athletes in a questionable manner, they did seek the acting Chef de Mission’s permission before sending them home, thereby avoiding overstepping their authority.
However, it should not be inferred that the fault in this situation lies with the Chef de Mission, who allowed the action without hearing from Nagy and Tapp. The fault lies in the fact that, in such disciplinary cases, there are no standardized guidelines to which a Chef de Mission can refer.
Had the incident been passed to some sort of impartial appeals board, the swimming association could have recommended to the board that the athletes be sent home. But the athletes would also have had a forum to present their case, with the board then judging accordingly. If the judgement were “guilty”, I would then expect the board to have found a penalty to suit the crime. One doesn’t expect a shoplifter and an armed robber to receive the same punishment. Nor would one expect an athlete who has a beer with his meal and one who is drunk, disorderly, and disgracing his country to receive the same penalty.
Consider the public relations implications of sending an athlete home. The taxpayer, who might have been able to rationalize his tax dollar going to help young athletes in pursuit of their goals, now asks why that tax dollar should pay for some drunken bums to see the world. At a time when public support is essential to sport for continued funding, we in amateur athletics continue to be our own worst enemies.
Not only do we generate poor publicity for amateur sport through our own short-sighted actions, but we treat some of our athletes as children while, at the same time, expecting them to perform as adults. True, a 13-year old on his or her first trip may need every hour of every day mapped out to maintain discipline and ensure maximum performance. But athletes of adult age should be given more responsibility and credit for understanding the job that has to be done.
Family life is usually structured in just that way, with the level of responsibility enlarged as age and experience develop. Why should this general rule be suspended within the context of athletic competition?
Every team must have discipline in order to achieve good results. However, it is time we examined several points related to discipline: the kinds of rules needed for different athletes; the personnel responsible for decision-making in disciplinary cases; and the procedures and guidelines involved in the decisionmaking. If an individual association cannot develop objective, internal procedures in disciplinary matters, then an appeals procedure must be developed to at least ensure the athletes their basic human rights.
Lacking a procedure to ensure neutrality, the coaches involved in the Nagy-Tapp incident are going to have a tough time erasing the suspicion that, while they may have thought they were acting in the best interest of the team, they were also trying to establish international reputations as tough, uncompromising coaches.
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