Alleged sexual assault at Damascus highlights crucial role of coaches

By Max Gersch

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When I heard about the alleged sexual assault at Damascus High School in November, I thought about coaches. As role models for their players, coaches have a more important role than ever to step up and set a good example for their teams.

A coach’s purpose is more than wins and losses. During the season, they’re the primary adult figure in athletes’ lives, and it’s their responsibility to transmit positive values to the team.

As I enter my fourth season of wrestling at Whitman, I find it remarkable just how much time I spend with my coaches. During the season, I spend up to 25 hours a week with my coaches, in classrooms — in the practice room in dingy high school gyms and silent buses. Coaches also see kids in different circumstances than teachers or parents do.

When I was a freshman on wrestling, the entire 35-person team was punished when a teacher overheard two seniors using lewd language. Any time our coach hears a member of the team curse, push-ups are doled out as penance, not just to the individual offender, but to everyone.

In the annual pre-season meeting with parents, our coach stresses that his primary job is first to teach us how to be better people. Wrestling comes second. On our informational handout, in bolded letters is the mantra: Family and school come before wrestling.

In ten years, I might forget how to wrestle. But the values my coaches taught me will stick with me for the rest of my life. My coaches aren’t great coaches because they taught me a few moves. They’re great coaches because they taught me hard work, discipline, and above all, respect.

Although the alleged perpetrators at Damascus were only 15 years old, four have been charged as adults, with multiple counts of first-degree rape in addition to other charges.

The alleged perpetrators are, of course, responsible for their own actions. That’s indisputable. And if their actions were as described, they were the antithesis of the camaraderie and brotherhood that sports teams try to form.

The reality of the case is this, though: the accused, the four fifteen year old children, could face life imprisonment for their crimes. They will face justice and bear the weight of their actions.

I certainly don’t know enough about this particular incident to say if a coach could have prevented it. But I do know that coaches play a vital role in shaping the team’s culture, and I know that kids look to their coaches for more than sports.

Being a good coach is about more than having a good record, training athletes to their full potential, or even winning a state championship. Character matters. Character education matters. Coaches are responsible for their athlete’s success in life, as people, just as much as they are responsible for their success on the field.

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