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Coach-player relationship must balance respect, trust

It's a matter of trust.

Parents trust the welfare of their children to teachers and coaches every single day, whether it's in a bus to a basketball game, or in a classroom learning about math.

Administrators do their best to make sure those kids are in good hands, but can't always predict if an individual is going to make a poor decision.

When a bad choice is made, the aftershocks can stretch far and wide.

Recent allegations of sexual contact between two Lake Park-Audubon, Minn., basketball coaches and two 17-year-old students have rocked the area - and the foundation of trust that is the basis of the relationship between student-athletes and coaches.

Some area administrators and coaches did not want to talk about this sensitive subject, but those who spoke agreed that the line between coach and student-athlete is one that cannot be blurred.

'It's about boundaries'

The relationship between coaches and players is an intricate balance of mutual respect and trust. It is also a relationship with specific rules that need to be followed by both parties.

When an incident occurs like the alleged one in Lake Park-Audubon, that balance gets thrown out of whack throughout the coaching community.

"This isn't about men coaching girls. It's about adults and children. It's about boundaries," said Perham, Minn., activities director Fred Sailer. "We have discussions so people understand those boundaries, but in the end, you just have to trust people.

"This, obviously, is an unfortunate situation where poor decisions were made."

Administrators do thorough background checks on all potential teachers and coaches, but mistakes are still made.

Hawley, Minn., activities director Brett Schmidt said all schools can do is make their best effort at judging character when they hire teachers and coaches. Administrators can't worry about predicting the future.

"If I'm sitting around worrying about whether or not a particular person is going to do something like that, that person is not going to be here," Schmidt said. "You're concerned because the welfare of people's children is in your hands.

"But if I have a person in a (coaching) position where I think something unfortunate might happen? If I have that, I'm not doing my job."

The Minnesota State High School League does not control how many chaperones go on road trips because those policies are up to each particular school.

Sailer and Schmidt said their schools have no policy regarding chaperones on trips with female teams and male coaching staffs.

One school has such a policy, however.

LP-A Superintendent Dale Hogie said his district has a policy that requires a female to be present for overnight trips if the coaches of a female team are male.

"When we have female teams traveling, we also want to have a female member present and traveling," Hogie said. "We followed that policy in this circumstance."

For the overnight trip in question, Karli Jo Kirkwood, a female assistant coach, traveled with the team, Hogie said.

Even policies with the best intentions can't prevent all errors in judgment, and Sailer said it always comes back to coaches and teachers respecting that they're in a position of authority.

"You can have all the discussions you want about this, but in the end, it comes down to trust," Sailer said. "When that trust gets broken, by either the kids or the adults, that's when the whole system is in trouble."

'Common sense'

Coaches are some of the most important role models in the lives of prep athletes, but they have to walk a tightrope between being an adult voice of reason and being the student-athlete's buddy.

"You can't help but be involved as a teacher and coach in kids' personal lives at times because they may not have anybody else they can go to," said Moorhead girls hockey coach Jim Macfarlane. "You make sure you're available and that they're comfortable with you, but they also have to understand that you're not there to be their friend.

"Kids need support, but there are counselors within our buildings and a process to go through with that stuff. You're there to help them, but there are people greater than yourself to get involved."

Macfarlane rarely goes into his team's locker room, and said he never goes in without a female assistant first making sure the coast is clear.

"As a male coach, with the male-female relationship, you have to tread very lightly," Macfarlane said. "You're in charge and leading adolescent females.

"They're young girls that look up to, and want to please, their coach. Coaches have to understand that there is a relationship there, but make solid decisions within that relationship."

Coaches aren't only there to teach student-athletes the Xs and Os of a particular sport, but also life lessons about teamwork, working hard and achieving goals.

A major draw of team sports, especially at the high school level, is the camaraderie between players and coaches. That's why keeping those relationships healthy is vital, Macfarlane said.

"People may not like everything about someone as a coach, but they trust that their children's physical well-being is taken care of," he said. "As an adult male, common sense has to prevail. It absolutely has to take precedence. It almost goes without saying. In no way, shape or form should this even be an issue.

"The relationships are extraordinarily important, but even more important is that they're held at a professional level."

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