Taking a stand: Union High coach suspends entire football team in lesson about character
During Saturday's team meeting, Labrum gave the suspended players a letter titled "Union Football Character," explaining exactly what the boys would need to do if they wanted to earn their jerseys back.
"The lack of character we are showing off the field is outshining what we are achieving on the field," the letter said. "It is a privilege to play this wonderful game! We must earn the opportunity to have the honor to put on our high school jerseys each Thursday and Friday night!"
Instead of practicing during the days leading up to a homecoming game against Emery High this Friday, they were told to perform community service, and attend study hall and a class on character development. They were also required to perform service for their own families and write a report about their actions.
The players were told they also need to show up on time and attend all of their classes. And those with bad grades were told they must show improvement if they wanted to play.
School administrators who learned of the decision to suspend the team the day before it happened, said they supported the move and saw it as more of an opportunity than punishment.
"As I thought about it, I've got 100 percent confidence in our (coaching) staff," said Principal Rick Nielsen. "They are just excellent men. Sometimes we do think we're bigger than the game."
No parent complained about the decision to the administration. Most expressed support and gratitude.
Jenn Rook admits that her first reaction to the suspensions was to hurry off to find a coach to corner, but then her son told her about what led to the decision.
“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.”
Like Rook, Jeremy Libberton was initially concerned when his son Jaden, a junior, told him what happened.
“I thought, ‘Why is this a team-type issue when there should be individuals that should be held accountable?” Libberton said. “But then I talked to several other parents, and there is really not a way to track this to specific people. I wish we could in this case.”
He talked with Labrum Saturday.
“After I met with him, he’s got my support,” said Libberton. “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.”
Of the seven team captains elected at the beginning of the season, only two were re-elected after Saturday’s team meeting. Gurr was one of them. He said he is a naturally quiet person, but now understands the need to speak up when he sees questionable behavior.
“I’m a pretty silent person, so I didn’t really say much,” he said, acknowledging that it's difficult to confront your friends when they're out of line. “We’d talk to them after practice sometimes; we’d run. It didn’t work out very well.”
He sees his role as team captain much differently this week than he did during the first two months of the season.
“It gives me a second chance,” Gurr said.
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.”
Football to most of the young men is the one thing they look forward to all day.
“It’s probably one of my most favorite things to do,” said Winterton, who also plays soccer and basketball for Union. “I was aware of some things that were going on. I’d never heard of (ask.fm) until coaches said it.”
Senior running back Gavin Nielsen said he had an ask.fm account but shut it down because he decided it was a waste of time. He also noticed that some of his teammates were skipping classes and struggling in school, but he didn’t always say something.
“One of my weaknesses that I wrote down,” he said, referring to an exercise the players engaged in during Monday's character class, “was that I wasn’t holding people accountable on the field and off the field. As a leader, on the field and off I have to hold people accountable.”
His passion for football hasn’t diminished, but Nielsen said he does have a new perspective on what it means to wear the Union High uniform.
“I still have the love for it and everything,” he said Monday while leaning on a shovel he was using to remove weeds as part of his community service. “But it helped me realize, it’s not all about football.”
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