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Taking a stand: Union High coach suspends entire football team in lesson about character

Published: Tuesday, Sept. 24 2013 4:30 p.m. MDT

Union football players put in service time at the Uintah Basin Rehabilitation and Senior Villa in Roosevelt on Tuesday, Sept. 24, 2013. The football coaches at Union High School have taken a stand against poor performance in the classroom and bullying outside the classroom, including disrespect of teachers and students.

Scott G Winterton, Deseret News

ROOSEVELT — Matt Labrum believes football helps create great men.

And it is that belief and his passion for the game that led the Union High School head football coach and his staff to suspend all 41 players from the team because of off-field problems ranging from cyberbullying to skipping classes.

“We felt like everything was going in a direction that we didn’t want our young men going,” said Labrum, an alumnus of the program he’s coached for the past two years. “We felt like we needed to make a stand.”

So the coach and his staff gathered the team together after Friday night's loss to Judge Memorial Catholic High School and told them he was concerned about some of the players' actions and behavior off the field. He then instructed them all to turn in their jerseys and their equipment. There would be no football until they earned the privilege to play.

Jenn Rook, whose son Karter is a sophomore on the team, was waiting outside the school that night.

“They were in the locker room for a really long time,” she said. “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.’”

Junior Jordan Gurr said he, too, was shocked.

“When they said we’re going to turn our jerseys in, I thought, ‘Oh, I’ve never been cut.’ I figured we’d just been cut. There were no more games. I was sad,” he said.

The coaches told them there would be a 7 a.m. meeting the next day where they would have an opportunity to re-earn a spot on the team.

“We looked at it as a chance to say, ‘Hey, we need to focus on some other things that are more important than winning a football game,” Labrum said. “We got an emotional response from the boys. I think it really meant something to them, which was nice to see that it does mean something. There was none of them that fought us on it.”

Cyberbullying

One incident in particular moved the coaches to action. A few days before, guidance counselors informed the coaches about a student who believed he was being harassed and bullied by football players on an anonymous online chat program called ask.fm — something Labrum and his staff had never heard of before last week. Because the social media website allows users to hurl insults from behind a screen name, there was no way for coaches or counselors to know who was harassing the young man, who is not a member of the football team.

“We said, ‘We’ve got to make a change,’” said Labrum, who met with the student who was bullied on Monday to offer an apology. “We were pretty open with (the players) about what we’d heard. We don’t want that represented in our program. … Whoever it is (doing the bullying), we want to help get them back on the right path.”

But there were other issues that concerned the coaches, including failing and skipping classes and showing disrespect to teachers.

“It had gotten to a new level,” said Labrum. “We felt like we weren’t respecting the teachers, what they were trying to do inside the school, other people’s time. Overall, our program wasn’t going where we wanted it to go. We weren’t reaching the young men like we wanted to reach them.”

So they stopped playing football and started discussing character.

Union character

“I think football molds character,” Labrum said. “We want to help our parents raise their sons. We want to be a positive influence. We want to be an asset.”

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