Education News Unleashed

Maine Rallies Behind Rules For Athletics

Youth athletes are increasingly expressing their concerns about unruly fans, overbearing coaches, and the pressures associated with elite travel teams. In response, superintendents, sports officials, and parents in Maine have come together to support a major initiative that aims to create more positive athletic experiences for young people. This initiative, called "Sports Done Right: A Call to Action on Behalf of Maine’s Student-Athletes," is being hailed as a national model.

To learn more about this initiative, you can visit the Maine Center for Sport and Coaching’s website. Over 400 individuals from across the state gathered in Augusta earlier this month for the release of "Sports Done Right." The report, which was written by a panel of principals, athletic directors, and coaches, took a year to complete. During this time, the panel studied trends in youth sports and searched for better models to guide school athletic programs.

With the support of a federal grant and the endorsement of Maine’s governor and commissioner of education, this effort aims to establish clear frameworks for how interscholastic sports should be conducted and monitored. This guidance is greatly needed, as sports play a significant role in shaping students’ identity and the overall culture of high schools. While high schools face increasing pressure to improve academic results, pep rallies and the pursuit of state championships continue to influence school culture.

The Maine initiative aligns with concerns raised by other national groups. Last fall, the National Association of State Boards of Education released a report warning about troubling trends in youth athletics. The report urged state boards and athletic associations to be more vigilant about questionable recruiting practices, corporate sponsorships, and other influences that could undermine schools’ educational missions.

Robert Cobb, the dean of the University of Maine’s college of education and a co-director of the university’s Sport and Coaching Education Initiative, emphasizes the need for action. He acknowledges that there have been excesses and departures from sound practices in school sports and believes that this project can help address these issues.

In addition to gathering feedback from students, the initiative organized the Maine Sports Summit, where a diverse group of individuals, including a past president of the American Medical Association and an Olympic gold medalist in the marathon, met with middle and high school students for small-group discussions.

The panel of Maine principals, coaches, and athletic directors leading the initiative is pushing for schools and communities to adopt "compacts" based on a set of principles and practices outlined in their report. These principles include increasing learning opportunities through sports, establishing a value-based athletic philosophy written into school board policy, offering nontraditional sports, reviewing recreation programs for inclusivity, and tying coaches’ compensation to their training and certification levels.

The hope is that these measures will improve the overall athletic experiences of young athletes and create a more equitable and positive sports culture in Maine.

The objective is to bring together parents, athletes, school boards, superintendents, and coaches in local meetings to discuss the fundamental principles and eventually sign "compacts" in which they agree to uphold the new standards. John Wolfgram, an English teacher at South Portland High School and an assistant football coach at Bowdoin College, who was part of the panel, said, "People want to do what’s best for their kids, but they often lack guidance on how to do it. This provides a model." Dan Bowers, the athletic administrator at Cony High School in Augusta, expressed support for the initiative to promote more balanced sports programs. He mentioned that finding coaches has become increasingly challenging as teachers take on more responsibilities and face diminishing respect from parents and fans. Unlike in the past, when student-athletes were more likely to have coaches who were also their teachers, most coaches at Cony High and across the state are not teachers. Mr. Bowers said, "I’m constantly trying to fill coaching positions. Teachers have limited time, and the pay is not fair."

Paul Vachon has enjoyed a successful coaching career spanning three decades and is one of the most respected girls’ varsity basketball coaches in the state. He also teaches 8th grade English at Cony High. Mr. Vachon believes that there is a lack of emphasis on hiring teachers who can also coach. He believes that teaching and coaching go hand in hand, as it is important to know students both as learners and athletes. He is also concerned about the influence of teams that operate outside of school, such as the Amateur Athletic Union (AAU), which has become a highly competitive platform for athletes seeking college scholarships through national tournaments. Mr. Vachon said, "I now have players being recruited by AAU coaches. Girls are paying up to $4,000 to be on AAU teams, and if a coach has 10 players, that’s $40,000. That’s more than what I earn as a teacher. I guess I chose the wrong profession." He also mentioned that there is a growing trend among athletes to specialize in one sport year-round, a trend that he does not understand. He believes that having athletes who participate in multiple sports leads to a more enjoyable experience.

Karen Brown, the director of the Maine Center for Sport and Coaching, which provides coaching training and resources, argues that whether athletes have fun largely depends on the attitude of coaches. She believes that one of the main challenges students face is the unrealistic pressures placed on them by coaches. She said, "Kids are so afraid of making mistakes that they can’t enjoy competition. Coaches feel the pressure from the community, and the kids bear the brunt of it." At Greely High School in Cumberland, Maine, approximately 70 percent of the student population participates in sports. Last year, the school won three state championships. During their first sports pep rally, a student-athlete quoted Henry David Thoreau, symbolizing the school’s commitment to maintaining a healthy balance. Chris Mosca, the principal, said, "Sports doesn’t dictate what we do here." Wayne Fordham, the assistant principal, used to work at a Nebraska high school where the football team defined the school’s identity. In contrast, at Greely High, they strive to integrate sports with other extracurricular activities like drama. Academic achievements are also celebrated. Mr. Fordham said, "We don’t have football jocks parading around like kings." 17-year-old juniors Rachelle Doucette and Greg Frost, who play basketball and soccer for Greely, noted that their involvement in school sports has become more intense as they aim to secure college scholarships for athletics.

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