Sports might be one of our favorite topics at YouthBeat – we’ve written about the Olympics and sportsmanship, soccer and head-related injuries, LeBron James and loyalty (from kids’ perspective) and more. We’ve also written about the state of sportsmanship in a blog on winning and on discussions of Silent Saturdays (a designated day in which soccer parents and coaches are asked to keep quiet on the sidelines) , the shifting role of the sports dad in conference presentations and in our YearBook. So, naturally, we felt compelled to weigh in on New Jersey’s recent decision to treat teens’ on-the-field trash-talking as a Civil Rights violation.
The new rules enforced by the New Jersey Interscholastic Athletic Association and the State’s Attorney General require that “obscene gestures, profanity or unduly provocative language or action toward officials, opponents, or spectators” be reported to the New Jersey Division of Civil Rights. The rules fall under New Jersey’s Anti-Bullying Bill of Rights Act and make it clear that the Act extends not only to locations outside of school (as originally stipulated) but specifically to the fields and courts where high school athletes play.
While educators and coaches will likely debate about how to enforce this Act, it’s likely that another debate will soon surface: whether a ban on trash-talking shows consistency and sensitivity or an over-regulating of children’s lives. Put another way, is “handling” trash-talking something that marks a mature athlete (i.e., one who can block out distracting fans or competitors’ chatter) or is on-field harassment as dangerous and damaging as a vicious Facebook campaign or a taunt in the school hallways?
In full disclosure, I should reveal having partaken in some trash-talking in my day. Some of my most bitter rivals from my soccer playing days were both the subjects of my in-game goads, and, years later, bridesmaids in my wedding! A few are neighbors whose kids play with my kids on the playground. For all of us, trash-talking was part of the game and it was easily forgiven after the fact.
But for today’s youth, bullying isn’t something that they’re permitted to accept as being part of childhood. Today’s youth know that words can be weapons, and weapons whose cuts can last. So it seems increasingly difficult to identify places where verbal punches should be seen as permissible. And while adult athlete might temporarily cringe at the sanitizing of sports in this way, it’s hard to argue that respecting others should stop once you walk on to the place where, for those same athletes, the goal is to be one’s best self.