Suspensions: Student athletes are human, too

By identifying youths, are newspapers really looking out for their best welfare? Yes, though it may not be immediately recognized by students, parents or coaches.

Nowhere is community pride reflected more strongly than in hometown, high school sports. A season’s ups and downs are talk of the town — from coffee shops to barber shops to break rooms to dinner tables. The headaches of coaches — including successes and failures of teams — often are common knowledge. The widespread attention is why community newspapers should report the accomplishments and shortcomings of teams and individual athletes.

Fans deserve to know why athletes, in particular those who are integral to a team’s success, miss a game. In some cases, newspapers’ credibility is at stake if they don’t report the news. For example:

A baseball team was poised to make a playoff run. The night before a game, the players gathered for a beer party. They were caught, and several starters were among those suspended. The team lost, depleted of many key players. The story became front-page news.

A golf team, fresh off a playoff victory, had high hopes for a state tournament appearance. But officials stripped a golfer of medalist honors because he was chewing tobacco on the course — a high school league violation — and suspended him from further competition. The newspaper reported the discipline as part of the story. The team, minus its leader, lost in the next round.

A basketball team, picked to be one of the top teams in the state, was cruising along. But an unexpected detour occurred. Two starters were scratched from the starting lineup. One was held out due to disciplinary reasons; the other was out of state visiting a college for a potential sports scholarship. The team lost to a clearly inferior opponent, and the newspaper, in a sentence, explained the reasons for each player’s absence.

The issue of reporting suspensions goes beyond sports. It quite often involves chemical health and as such is part of a far greater community discussion.

Newspapers won’t win a lot of points for identifying suspended athletes. That doesn’t mean they should shirk from reporting the facts. Missing players can affect a team’s performance. If a player is injured, it’s reported. If someone is out for other reasons, that ought to be told, too.

There are other reasons for telling the truth:

Suspended players, looking perfectly healthy, sit on the bench during a game. Fans deserve to be told why.

Players may miss a game for other legitimate reasons. A general statement — “several players were missing either due to suspensions or injuries” — unfairly brands them all.

In most cases, players have a choice whether to be involved in an activity which may result in suspension. Before they can play athletics, they sign a contract to abide by rules.

Newspapers also can make a case for constructing suspensions as “good news.” Each report is an acknowledgement that coaches are holding youths accountable for their actions. It’s a positive reflection on playing by the rules as opposed to winning at any cost.

Are editors sensationalizing suspensions only to sell more newspapers? Such criticism is an insult to the resources and space that most newspapers devote to promoting high school sports. If sensationalism were the intent, an athlete’s photo and name would be in page-one headlines.

Critics may charge double standards in reporting violations of high school policy for athletes. What about students who are withheld from band or speech competition for violations?

By society’s own standards, sports are a class apart. Witness the credo of a longtime high school basketball coach. He preached to his players that they were held to higher standards, and deservedly so. People supported the programs with tax dollars. People paid to watch them play.

Newspapers and their readers should view the issue of suspensions — especially those involving alcohol and tobacco — in the context of a communitywide concern. Coaches can use the suspension to work positively with youths, and make them better for it. Newspapers can become a partner in being part of the solution.

The underlying reason for acknowledging both achievements and missteps of high school athletes was stated matter-of-factly by a longtime sports booster who was quizzed on the policy. He hadn’t really given much thought to it. Pressed a little further, he said it might be a bit embarrassing to the youth. But, he added, “It’s the truth.”

The preponderance of community journalism about high school sports is “good news.” It may involve the winning score, the decisive volley or the perfect dive. Newspapers send the wrong message to young people by reporting only the feats that make them heroes and not the mistakes that reveal them as human.