PSA 2001 "The Devil Made Me Do It"

Heidi Thibert, Michael Paikin,and David Shulman ran a session on coaches' ethics cleverly titled "The Devil Made Me Do It." Since one of their first comments on the PSA ethics committee was that they wanted to raise awareness, and not have people think of "ethics" as something as judgmental as it sounds, one can only guess that they put some effort into coming up with a title that would amuse and not intimidate.

A major motive for having a PSA ethics committee at all, said Shulman, is that "We do not want other organizations telling us what to do." Sounds good to me. Coaches are responsible not only for skaters' physical, technical, and mental training, but their character development as well; an ethical foundation is crucial.

"Perception is reality," said Shulman. "You can tell the skaters whatever you want, but they watch what you do." Drink, smoke, or take drugs, and the skaters will not heed your warnings against these things.

Shulman then asked what he called an "uncomfortable question": who will drive the babysitter home? This caused a moment of generation or gender gap for me, as it never occurred to me that this would be an uncomfortable question. But Shulman's talk about the political and legal climate around sexual harassment made me realize that he was addressing his comments to coaches who, ten or twenty years ago, would not have been aware of the need to be careful to avoid situations that might be or appear dangerous.

It is the coach's responsibility to set a good example of sportsmanship for the skaters and the parents. The coach must teach the value of honest effort and honoring the rules, must instill healthy competitive attitudes in practices and competitions, must teach respect for the judgment of officials and keep disagreements professional, must educate parents on the philosophy and expectations of the USFSA, ISI, ISU, PSA, and the ethics committees thereof.

Be careful how you speak on the job. "What you may consider a joke may not be considered so by parents of a 7-year-old," warned Shulman. In addition, keep in mind not only what you say, but how you say it; be aware of who is around you.

One subgroup of the PSA grievance committee is called COPS, or Committee on Professional Standards. COPS is trying to work closely with the USFSA, and has come up with a "menu of sins":

1. Foul language, inappropriate remarks.

2. Inappropriate body contact. Shulman suggested prefacing hands-on work with a skater with the question, "May I touch you?"

3. Conflict of interest.

4. Slander, defamation of character.

5. Solicitation of every kind, direct or third party.

6. Falsification of credentials.

7. Child abuse, physical and sexual. [I thought it might be useful for the PSA to give a session on how a coach can touch a student during a lesson so that it's clear there's no abusive intent.] In many states, a coach is a mandatory reporter, meaning obligated to notify authorities if they see that a child is being abused by anyone.

8. Sexual involvement with a minor.

Thibert said she would like to see coaches, parents, and officials work in partnership on the issue of character development, "so we're saying the same things to kids."

It was recognized that many problems are between peers, and there can be sexual harassment between co-workers. It was suggested that for ratings exams, one or two of the required credits could be on ethics.

The panelists and attendees discussed some hypothetical situations. One coach mentioned a student who was affected because her mother was suicidal. The panel advised the coach to have the child speak to someone at her school who understands mandatory reporting.

Shulman noted that lawyers can disclose confidences if the person is about to do bodily harm that may result in deadly force (in connection with someone having a gun). In all such dicey cases, he reminded everyone, "Document, document, document."

Coaches were reminded that sexual abuse can happen with female coaches too, not just male. It's a changed environment; people have to be aware.

What happens, someone asked, when the parents approve of an abusive coach? This person went to the management, as suggested, but... the abuser in question owned the pro shop in the rink, and the management was invested in staying on her good side. (Laughter of recognition from everyone assembled.) Obviously, justice was not done in this case.

The panel advised checking if there is a written policy for abuse within the rink. Then, contact an outside agency that deals with abuse. Try to work as a team -- perhaps ask the management to hold an awareness session for staff.

Follow-up question: what if the rink allows an abusive coach to continue with group and private lessons?

Answer: then call the PSA office. The PSA will contact the rink management and say, "Something is happening in your facility." And it will go from there. The PSA will not reveal the name of the person who made the call.

What about when a staffer you dislike goes job-hunting, and a prospective employer asks you what you think of them? The answer, of course, was "be very, very cautious." You do want to tell what's going on, if there's abuse, but if you say too much, you are defaming the person and open to a lawsuit....

Other points mentioned were that Karen Courtland Kelly is pushing for surveillance cameras in rinks, "for our protection." Parents should educate kids on appropriate touching, since in skating and coaching, there has to be some touching involved in order for the students to learn. "If I hadn't been caught, spotted, and manhandled," said one person, "I probably wouldn't be alive today."

Coaches who want copies of "permission to travel" slips (parents sign these when their kids go out of town under the coach's supervision) can contact the PSA office and have them mailed.

David Shulman closed the session by saying, "We're going to make this right."

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