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Who will pay for coach-ordered referee hit?

Jay High School head football coach Gary Gutierrez, center, and principal Robert Harris, left, are sworn in at a University Interscholastic League (UIL) State Executive Committee, where they reported that they believed that assistant coach Mack Breed told players to retaliate against an official in the closing minutes of a game earlier this month, Round Rock, Texas, September 24, 2015 (Credit: AP Photo/Eric Gay)

On September 4, two football players from John Jay High School in the San Antonio, TX, area blindsided a referee during their game, deliberately tackling him from behind late in the fourth quarter. Caught on video and disseminated widely on YouTube, the incident resulted in the boys’ suspension from the team and school. While the boys attend the district’s alternative school, appeals move forward. The boys claim that an assistant coach directed them to “make the referee pay” for alleged racial slurs and poor calls during the game.

The assistant coach has since admitted to such direction and resigned his position. School and state athletic officials now gather to determine the next steps. Will the coach be punished? Will the school or its football program suffer consequences? Will either player ever be allowed to play football in Texas again?

My football-playing son was listening to radio reports with me, so I summarized for him: “The coach said he told the kids to hit the ref because the ref was saying ugly things. So the kids obeyed—they’ve been trained to follow coaches’ orders.  Who was wrong, and who was right? What do you think should happen now?”

After a short moment of reflection, my son said, “They were both wrong. The coach shouldn’t have told the kids to hit the ref, and the kids should have said no and not done it.”

“Does it matter that the ref may have been saying racially hurtful words?” I pressed him.
“Nope,” he responded. “Cause that would just make it revenge, right?”

[Pausing for short parental pride moment. Ok, thanks.]

Exactly, son. I was reminded of the immortal parental saying, “Two wrongs don’t make a right.” And since the ref continues to deny using racial remarks of any kinds, the number of wrongs in this situation is still speculative.

Thankfully, the boys themselves seem to understand the significance of their own choices. The boys’ lawyer says that the boys have taken responsibility for their actions, understanding that they had a choice and they made the wrong choice.  

“The righteousness of the righteous shall be upon himself, and the wickedness of the wicked shall be upon himself” (Ezekiel 18: 20b). Our sins are our own. The coach must now deal with the repercussions of his vengeful instructions. The players also currently live under a new reality in school and sports.

But the cynic in me worries that the UIL board will reinstate the players, nullifying their discipline, in light of the coach’s admission of “ordering the hit.” As if the hit wasn’t as bad because they were instructed by an authority figure to do it. What sort of lesson would that teach those children, and all who look on?

No matter the impetus or regret for doing wrong, the wrong doer can still benefit from discipline.  “The evil deeds of the wicked ensnare them; the cords of their sins hold them fast. For lack of discipline they will die, led astray by their own great folly” (Proverbs 5:22-23). And “no discipline seems pleasant at the time, but painful. Later on, however, it produces a harvest of righteousness and peace for those who have been trained by it (Hebrews 12:11).

At my house, it might look like this: Your grades are suffering? Hand over the electronics (and any other distraction from schoolwork). You forgot to do your chores? Here’s my list of extra ones to add on to the ones you neglected. You stole something? Off we go to return it, apologize publically, then work off the value of the object (through chores or community service). Each case is determined individually with prayer, because finding the most effective discipline can be difficult.

As parents, we struggle with the balance of administering discipline with grace, between tough love and gentle instruction. Discipline informs the character of our children; grace builds the soul back up.

As children of God we are grateful that Jesus took the punishment for our sins, showering us with grace upon grace. Yet we, too, still face intermittent discipline when personal choices separate us from his heart. “God disciplines us for our good, in order that we may share in his holiness (Hebrews 12:10)” and “Those whom I love I rebuke and discipline. So be earnest and repent” (Rev. 3:19).

The football story reminds me of the now classic film, A Few Good Men, in which a judge must determine whether two marines inadvertently caused the death of fellow marine PFC Willy Santiago by administering inter-squad discipline at the order of their commanders. When the men are found not guilty of murder—because they acted under orders—but guilty of conduct unbecoming and dishonorably discharged, one of them turns to the other in confusion.

“What did we do wrong? We did nothing wrong!” he cries. The other responds, “Yeah we did. We were supposed to fight for people who couldn’t fight for themselves. We were supposed to fight for Willy.”

My husband and I are raising a few good men and one good woman. To do that, we must not be afraid to discipline in love.

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