In these days of helicopter parenting — particularly moms and dads who view their athletic kids as superstars who can do no wrong — the jobs of non-parental authority figures are often considerably more difficult.
So when Matt Labrum, head football coach at Union High School in Roosevelt, Utah, suspended his entire team — all 80 of them — last week, can you guess what was coming next from parents of those suddenly former players?
If you figure Labrum got his head handed to him as he heard call after call for his immediate dismissal, you'd be incorrect.
Believe it or not, Labrum says he's received no ill will from moms and dads for his radical disciplinary move — and that has everything to do with the off-field problems that fueled the total team suspension (e.g., bad attitudes toward teachers, skipping classes, failing grades, and a serious allegation of cyberbullying) and his desire to correct them.
So Labrum told the players to turn in their jerseys — if they wanted to wear them again, they'd each have to earn the right to do so by jumping through an arduous series of hoops, including extensive community service, according to Deseret News.
Jenn Rook, whose son Karter is a sophomore on the team, was waiting outside the school the night he and his teammates got the axe.
“They were in the locker room for a really long time,” she told Deseret News. “They came out, and there were tears. Those boys were wrecked. My son got in the car really upset and [said], ‘First of all, there is no football team. It’s been disbanded.’”
Initially that got Rook's back hairs up, but when Karter told her what the players had done to deserve the suspension, her attitude quickly shifted.
“OK, that’s not so bad then,” Rook said. “I do support it. These boys are not going to be hurt by this. It’s a good life lesson. … It’s not a punishment. I see it as an opportunity to do some good in the community.”
Jeremy Libberton was initially concerned when his son Jaden, a junior, told him what happened. But after he met with the coach, Libberton tells Deseret News "he’s got my support. I’m encouraging my boy to stand strong, to stand with the team and get through it. … If there is not unity with me and the coach, then I become part of the problem.”
The coaches got a thumbs-up from school administrators, too , who easily could have nixed the radical move as too risky to a flagship program like the school's football team.
"As I thought about it, I've got 100 percent confidence in our (coaching) staff," Principal Rick Nielsen tells Deseret News. "They are just excellent men. Sometimes we do think we're bigger than the game."
Football coaches, even in high school, are judged primarily on how many wins they get their teams; the much-less-tangible "life lessons" — and even the academic side of things in some schools — typically finish a distant second as far as priorities go.
But not for Labrum and his staff.
“We felt like everything was going in a direction that we didn’t want our young men going,” said Labrum, a former player of the team he’s coached for the last two seasons. “We felt like we needed to make a stand.”
The first order of business was discussing personal character. At the 7 a.m. Saturday meeting the night after the team-wide suspension, Labrum gave the players a letter titled "Union Football Character," explaining exactly what they needed to do to earn their jerseys back.
In addition to community service — which included pulling weeds, cleaning school hallways, washing windows, and visiting with residents at two long-term care facilities — they'd each have to attend study hall and a class on character development and perform services for their own families and each write a report about their actions.
Also they'd have to arrive on time to all their classes and improve their grades. Finally, there was a re-election of team captains that morning...and only two of the seven original captains were placed back in their spots.
Junior quarterback Tye Winterton said he believes the break from football will make them better players — and better people.“I definitely didn’t want to turn in my jersey,” said Winterton, who is an honors student. “I love playing. But I trust the coaches and believe in what they’re doing.”
"We're still practicing," Labrum tells KSL-TV, "but we're practicing on some different skills."
Here's a report from KSL-TV:
(H/T: Deseret News)