As of last week, coaches of sports at some institutions of secondary education were urged to make sure all eligible students-athletes are registered and ready to vote. The call came from institutional administrators under the assumption the coaches can tackle the task being in closest communication with student athletes.

The presented campaign sounds like a genuine effort to encourage athletes to follow up on the simple act of citizenry, and that is fine and even honorable. The request was presented as a contest among the sports: “Who will be the first to have the full team registered?” 

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However in my opinion there is no way the coaches should ever submit to such a form of extortion. Yes, it is our personal right and privilege to exercise our beliefs and that is what democracy stands for. Yet, coaches step in the wrong bracket as soon as we advocate or solicit something other than athletic performance.

Most recently, the worldwide address of cases of sexual harassment and other misuse of control by coaches in sports are just a simple example of what “position in power” means. To endorse politics being a part of sport is an equally dangerous activity.

Coaches are in very unique positions regarding their relationship to the athletes. There is no other parallel except the commanding officers in armed forces. While athlete careers are in the hands of coaches and the lives of soldiers are in the hands of commanding officers, we cannot abuse this unique relationship for anything else than the pure performance. The coach is in a daily and most intimate relationship with the athlete, and is first in the line of fire if things go south. Tons of literature has been written on this phenomenon and it is all true.

Unfortunately, our sports and playing fields are becoming political and social platforms for a variety of campaigns, while the pure sport is suffering immensely. Yet, while young athletes (in any sport) are making “highly educated and emotional” social and political statements, all active coaches should — and in large part are — staying out of it!

This is for a good reason.

All coaches know how emotionally intense and sensitive our job is. To abuse this relationship in any other direction other than sport performance is absolutely wrong. Anything other than pure sport changes the dynamics of the relationship. If the coach uses his position for any agitation other than sport, it is a full-blown criminal activity!

Human history is infested with ugly examples of misuse and abuse of sport for a political purpose. Sport is a purest expression of physical and mental qualities of an individual. We always perceived it that way, and should preserve it as a sacred commodity.

As an example of the unique role sports plays in the world: In the era of the ancient Olympic Games, a truce was exercised for a full Olympic year, even among the most stubborn enemies.

Do we have the same respect for what we do?

18 COMMENTS

  1. The Buffs’ mighty alpine ski program exists solely through connection to an educational institution. Isn’t education, including college, intended to prepare young people to become active and informed adult participants in a democracy? Encouraging your student-athletes to vote is no different from — or less important than — encouraging them to understand at least the basics of history, language, math, science, etc. such that they can live productive and meaningful lives. A big part of living a productive and meaningful life in a democracy is voting.

    • Dave you make great points but with a likely audience of 13 athletes eligible to vote in the US elections Mr Rokos possible impact is rather limited. Surely these athletes are exposed to the non-stop barrage of ads on social media and other sources that push them to vote. And as he so eloquently asserted “All coaches know how emotionally intense and sensitive our job is. To abuse this relationship in any other direction other than sport performance is absolutely wrong” which I find to be rather pure and gentlemanly. Further, I’d say that is a rather impressive and non-militant stance in a rather divisive environment, as I’m sure you’d agree.

      Let us hope these athletes were raised by parents who took the time to enlighten, educate and help their children develop an interest in the political process. If not, maybe these athletes paid attention in high school and developed an understanding of the political process without needing a coach to foster that interest. Or maybe they have professors pushing this narrative while Rokos can stay on point with his stated roles and responsibilities…

  2. I am a big fan of Coach Rokos and what he has done for college ski racing. However, encouraging students to vote is a good thing at any level. For example, I think it’s great the NFL is encouraging their fans to get out and vote. Most NFL owners are Billionaires who are probably conservative politically, but voting is not political. It’s a wonderful right of a democracy regardless of your party affiliation. As a college student away from home it can be difficult to figure out where to vote, so that’s another reason why educational institutions should provide some direction in terms of voting locations or how to vote with an absentee ballot.

  3. Just for the record! As Dave said, the school is offering the broad educational opportunity. Math teachers are teaching math, political science teachers are teaching political science, …….etc. I just advocate for coaches to coach the sports since that is their prime purpose. Believe me I value the democracy above all. Left my “home” in pursuit of democracy. To tell coaches what they should tell athletes does not sound too democratic if it comes from coaches superiors. Otherwise, no worries, the athletes get plenty of feedback (from coaches) on the general purpose of the life:). Taking it from there should be their personal privilege.

  4. I don’t know anything about Mr Rokos and maybe he is indeed a wonderful coach. However, his stating that encouraging coaches of educational institutions to in turn encourage their student athletes to register to vote is “extortion” and “criminal” is completely off base and, along with some of his other veiled references to keeping “politics” out of sports, suggests that he has a different agent than what he is pretending to present here. Does Mr. Rokos perhaps also believe that professors shouldn’t teach critical thinking to their students because that’s “political,” or does he believe that the Star Spangled Banner should not be performed at sporting events because that is “political”?

  5. Richard, I am not sure you understand the meaning of some words-

    Extortion- the practice of obtaining something, especially money, through force or threats.
    Not sure how you get encouraging athletes to vote out of this meaning?

    Democracy-control of an organization or group by the majority of its members.
    This has been challenged for years and with 2 elections, the one with the most votes did not become president.

    Universities and Colleges are encouraging their students to vote for many reasons and I certainly don’t understand your use of the word extortion???

    As far as a democracy- some people feel the majority may not be in control after the elections. Democracy is being challenged! Vote

  6. Kevin, my apology for using a strong words. I could easy pretend a lack of vocabulary but the main point is no one should use my relationship with the athletes to pursue his/her agenda regardless of the content. My relationship is formed strictly on the athletic base and I should (by my job description) do only what is within my expertise and knowledge. I use to live in the country where coaches had to be also ambassadors of political movement. Fairly ugly scenario and I do not want to do it again.

  7. Voting also serves as an endorsement of our system which is objectively corrupt and most likely unsalvageable. The current campaigns to vote early and by mail expose the election process to even more opportunities for fraud. Thoughtful people, especially those who have studied history and philosophy can very easily see that “voting” is not always the right thing to do, especially now that we have lost faith in our media, government and academic institutions.

    Kudos for bucking the trend Coach Rokos. Maybe a few ski athletes will be brave enough to think independently based on your example.

  8. As I look at the above comments the Political Views come spewing out! People have a right to vote period … if they wish to. Some people do not want to participate, that is there right. Putting politics in every aspect of life has brought us to where we are today, a divided country. People used to cast a vote every two years and move on with there lives. The media keeps politics in our lives every day. Now we have sports doing the same thing. If we haven’t figured it out by now that POLITICIANS AND THE MEDIA DO NOT CARE about us … then our society is doomed! Coach keep your coaching and your sport pure!

  9. Coach Rokos is admirably opposed to the politicalization of sport. He is entirely correct! Where sport is subsumed to politics performance outcomes become secondary and subject to manipulation. Such corruption negates the whole concept of competitive athletics as it subsumes the individual or the team to the needs of the state and the collective.

  10. Great article Richie! There is no place for politics in sports – even though we’ve all seen it happen at times. Understanding politics should come from parents and learning institutions, period. Then, an individual can decide how to exercise their given right. Politics should not be part of the athletic curriculum.

  11. Mr. Roko,

    While I appreciate your legitimate concern lest coaches abuse their positions of influence, as a veteran coach and teacher, I am saddened by your narrow conception of a coach’s role and responsibilities towards her or his athletes.

    First of all, the idea of a “pure” sport, devoid of any connections to political or social agendas is a fantasy that has never existed. “Our sports and playing fields” have always been “political and social platforms for a variety of campaigns.” In nineteenth-century industrial Europe, sport was used to entertain, distract, and pacify restive working classes. The twentieth century and the advent of the Olympics and World Cup offered ripe opportunities to amplify nationalist sentiments, in the service of all sorts of governments and regimes, from democratic to communist to fascist. Indeed, the very ancient example that you concluded with—that of the Olympic truce in classical Greece—was by definition political!

    Second, as others have noted, by encouraging one’s athletes to vote, a coach is not “agitating” on behalf of any “political platform,” merely encouraging her or his charges to embrace their civic privileges and responsibilities as citizens of a democracy. In fact, rather than abusing a position of power, actively exhorting athletes to vote empowers them, especially if one emphasizes the importance of informing and educating one’s self about issues and current events.

    Third, to attempt to erect an absolute barrier between activism and sport runs the risk of moral bankruptcy. If we imagine ourselves transported to another place in time, whether it be segregation-era America, apartheid South Africa, or Nazi Germany, would that we would have had the courage to teach our charges and to work with them to oppose the systems and structures of oppression. In those contexts, as in others, silence provided the complicity that enabled those evils to exist. I hear your fear, that one person’s freedom is another’s oppression. As you intimated and have yourself experienced, dictatorships of the Cold War did also use the language of liberation and equality even as they coerced and controlled their peoples. Perhaps this guideline can enable coaches to guard themselves against the abuse of their power and influence: empower and protect the rights and agency of all individuals.

    Finally, to build upon this last thought, with humility and respect for your life experiences and your experience as an educator, I submit that we abuse our power in the form of neglect if we pursue “pure performance” alone. (The very thought makes me shudder. Perhaps unfairly, it makes me think of Bill Belichik, who prizes victory above all else, including the rules of the game. And I write that as a New England native who shares his alma mater.) I look up to my colleagues who have helped teenage boys grow into young men who stand up for the rights of their female teammates, who recognize the privileges they possess as people with sufficient affluence to ski and race while others their age have to head from school to a job and may never be able to afford a college education, not to mention a week-long training trip. As a coach, my immediate goal is to help each athlete become a better ski racer. But my greater goal is to fundamentally empower every individual I work with and to cultivate a culture in which each and every person is empowered. By extension this means a culture of that actively opposes gender discrimination, racism, homophobia, xenophobia, and other threats to the dignity, value, and respect of every individual. This cultivation should not take the form of lectures, sermons, or locker room speeches that seek to coerce athletes’ thinking. But in the conversations on bus or van rides or over meals, the boundaries to the humor we use and tolerate, the language we employ, we can and should do more than isolate ourselves and our athletes in a opaque bubble called sport.

    You have announced your retirement. Congratulations on your myriad successes. I do hope that, as you reflect on your career, you are able to take satisfaction in more than mere championships—that you are able to recall numerous alumni of your program who are better people because of your lifetime of coaching.

    Thank you for your thought-provoking opinion!

  12. Sorry Richard, I can’t support you on this one, and all the others above who sided with you. I don’t buy “shut up and ski (dribble).” I could give you a hundred reasons but I’ll try to brief. Currently, I am and have worked for the past ten years in the soccer world, specifically the Philadelphia Union (currently #2 in the Eastern conference) and its development program underneath, 8 to 19yrs old. Depending on the age group, we are 50% or more African-American, 30% Hispanic, etc. So, if I understand you correctly, any of our coaches, be they black, brown or white, should not take any position regarding systemic racism in America, with the classic example being the death of George Floyd, and subsequently, the many millions marching in the streets, including many members of our program. Sorry guys, I have no opinion here, I’m just your coach! “But coach, last time we stopped for snacks on the way home, I was followed around the store, the white boys weren’t.”

    By your standards, a coach had better not make any off the cuff comments, they had better keep their body language neutral, no facial expressions one way or the other. and should demand that any player missing training to protest local injustices that might have happened in their neighborhood, or to a close friend, had better find another team.

    I was in the streets in the ’60s and are there now. If more people had taken a stance perhaps, just perhaps, we would be farther along to living out the ideals of this country and its constitution. Sorry coach, “shut up and coach,” can’t support it.

    Finn Gundersen

    • Hello Finn, I do not think we are on the opposite side of spectrum. First of all the title of article was “coaches and politics”.
      The more controversial title was changed by S/R staff without my knowledge. It would not change too much on the content but if you read it I did not agitated against a voting.
      I was just opposing a concept of forcing coach (by our superiors) and using coaches relationship with athletes to agitate for something else than the sport.
      They knew (my superiors) that I have a different level of relationship with athletes and the message would have a different weight. I hope you understand. For me this is the matter of principle regardless of what is the message. Obviously in the team meetings we are talking about future of this country and I know we all (the ski team skiers) voted! We just did not go to the ballot as a sheep in one heard because someone ordered us to do so. Your 60’ experience gave you a perspective in your life. I have lived for 30 and coached 10 years in communist regime where we had to do those things regardless if we liked it or not. I came to this country and I was thrilled and still am that I can use my own judgement and opinion without someone telling me what I have to do. Telling someone “you have to vote” and to make out of it a team competition did not resonate too well. Sorry:)! On top of it, following this election cycle is a lot different then any previous. Seeing two “distinguished” gentlemen barking each other like dogs with the rest of the party officials losing any sense of decency makes me sick and I believe this whole process is not a best learning experience for our young adults.
      Otherwise and personally I miss you in the ski world and hope you will come back one day. Talking a lot with Old boys about glorious days of Coaches education:).

  13. As a former CU Ski Team alpine team member who skied for Richard, I wanted to share some perspective that I think gives more context to his comments.
    To me the main point of Richard’s column is not about the whether encouragement to vote is worthwhile or noble. If asked, I have no doubt that Richard would expound on the virtues of casting a vote in the US;
    I have every belief as well that if an athlete asked to leave practice early to complete a ballot that they would have his total support. After all, Richard and his wife Helena made one of the most difficult
    decisions possible when they “jumped the wall,” escaped from Czech, and after many trials and tribulations made it first to western Europe and then the US. More than almost all of us, he appreciates the privilege
    that comes with citizenship and the ability to vote in free elections. So while Richard believes strongly in the importance of the vote, his point is that his role is to develop and encourage alpine and nordic
    ski racers to fulfill their athletic potential. Certainly other aspects come with that such as being a productive member of a team and maintaining academic performance. However, bringing additional requests or
    demands from the athletes can start to exceed the scope of the role. Additionally, since the coach-athlete relationship can have an inherent imbalance, the coach can put an athlete into a position where they
    feel there is not a way to refuse the request. Thus an athlete may take issue with a request that is beyond the scope of a coach’s purview, but feel they must comply in order to keep a spot or certain team status.
    While there are several valid points and positions in this discussion, I hope all can hear that while Richard takes no issue with the content of the discussion, he believes all are better off by applying certain
    boundaries to his role and its place in the community.

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