Ethics Hero: Matt Labrum, Union High (Roosevelt, Utah) Football Coach

Six Pillars

Matt Labrum, head coach of Union High School in Roosevelt, Utah, suspended all 80 of his players, citing  a lack of character. He instructed them all to turn in their jerseys and their equipment, and announced that there would be no football until they earned the privilege to play. Labrum gave his shocked players a letter titled “Union Football Character” which declared in part,

“The lack of character we are showing off the field is outshining what we are achieving on the field. 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 this weekend’s game, the students were ordered to perform community service, to attend study hall and go to a class on character development. They were also required to perform service for their own families, and write a report about their actions. Academically, the players were told to be on time for classes, and to improve their grades.

It is unclear what prompted the coach’s action, though some of the players, he felt, had engaged in cyber bullying, and he was aware of other instances in which various players had not, in his view, lived up to exemplary standards of behavior. Several of them had been rude and obnoxious, he had learned to other students and teachers—in other words, they were behaving like high school football players. Rather than punish individual students, Coach Labrum decided to impose team wide measures designed to foster good character. His theory, clearly, was to encourage a team culture of ethical conduct, strengthened  by group encouragement and enforcement of shared values. Labrum is also a gifted salesman, since it appears that opposition from students, their parents and the school administration has been minimal.

In many schools, including colleges, football players are the biggest jerks on campus: the culture of school sports too often nurtures entitlement and arrogance. Imagine a school athletic culture in which the athletes were expected to embody the best of ethical values both on and off the field.

The implications are staggering.


Pointer: Lianne Best

Sources: Yard Barker Deseret News

42 thoughts on “Ethics Hero: Matt Labrum, Union High (Roosevelt, Utah) Football Coach

  1. I can only hope this idea spreads – the culture of “look the other way” and “blame the victim” was pretty staggering in my day. An athlete called you hurtful names? Every day? Develop a thicker skin. An athlete shoved you or pushed you? You must have done something to bring it on yourself. One suggestion for expansion, though, administrations at high schools patronized by the kids of rich families need to follow suit, and let it be known that no phone call, no closed-door conversation, and no check from dad will buy them out of trouble for behaving like entitled jerks.

  2. “Wednesday night the team found out all but 9 of the 41 varsity players had been reinstated. On Friday, they’ll play in their big Homecoming game.”

    Wow, this football coach is not only an ethics hero candidate, he’s the fastest, most efficient builder of character in young men in the world! Guess his point wasn’t worth forfeiting this week’s homecoming game against the squad from The Little Sisters of the Poor.

      • Remember these are high school CHILDREN. A short dramatic event like turning in your jersey is way more effective than a long term punishment. The boys would have forgotten the intended lesson if the punishment were extended.

      • The impact on the players has happened and they are on notice. How long does it need to last before it’s deemed not about the game? When good actions get criticized because they fail some arbitrary test of their effectiveness it negates them. I applaud the coach and the community that supported him.

      • A ploy? Am I missing something?

        The coach mapped out a 5 point plan to earn the jersey back, then kept more than 20% of the players from returning to the team. I read somewhere that only 2 of the original team captains were reinstated to that post. It looks to me like the kids with character are bouncing back and the man is sticking to his guns with the others.

          • I do agree that character cannot be built in a week – but this may have had a big impact. I don’t think it has to be about canceling a game or punishing the team to make a difference.

            What the coach did was send a strong message that off the field conduct was important and that the team needed to be different. He made the practice week 180 degrees different than it ever has been and found out who was on board for change and who wasn’t. One-in-five of the kids did not measure up and were benched for the Homecoming game. A strong message to the whole team…we’ll see what next week brings.

    • I think it was the nuclear option, intended to shock the kids into doing things like “going to class” which seems to have been a huge problem.

      The homecoming game is a huge thing for the entirety of the school, so I can understand why he’d give a break once. if it becomes a problem again I really wouldn’t be shocked if varsity football disappeared from that school.

      • Many rural Utah schools with small populations play baseball as their fall sport. (Long winters with late springs also are an issue.) It’s completely possible that the high school could end its football program.

  3. I like the idea of punishing everyone on the team, instead of the select few. It rules out discrimination (since this is Utah they probably are pretty much the same background) claims by angry parents, and instead hits the heart of the matter.

    Question is, does this type of punishment affect change?

    • Punishing everybody for the sins of a few, or one, is the laziest, worst thing people in authority (usually sadistic HS coaches) can do to kids. It’s telling the good kids to go threaten the bad kids so the bad kids can beat up the good kids. Good luck with that happening. The only teachers and coaches I ever had that did this were both just awful and lazy and verged on the point of grandstanding. Indiscriminate punishment is terrible. What does it tell the good, behaving kids? “Behave but if the moron next to you acts like a jerk, your good behavior is irrelevant.” Great lesson, huh?

      • Find me a parent of more than one child who hasn’t punished all the kids because getting to the bottom of the brouhaha is impossible. It works.

      • I’m as individualist as they come, but a defining mark of our civilization is knowing when people should be treated as individuals (most of the time) and when people should be treated as a collection (on occasion). Teams are one of those occasions. Leadership singling out individuals within teams for punishment often times can isolate that individual from his comrades in public, leading to public disdain and inevitable separation from the group… which is no problem if that is the objective. However, if the leadership wishes to edify all the trouble makers, as he sees they can be redeemed and not cut off, then mass punishment forces peers to keep their internal policing on a more private level. No public pride hurt, the wrongdoers can fix themselves.

        That gives leadership flexibility for the next step if the miscreants then don’t get their acts together after he has afforded them time to amend themselves.

        Another benefit is that a self-policing team is a much stronger team on the field as well. They’ve tested each others character, and as iron sharpens iron, they’ll trust each other more, which inevitably will pay dividends on the field.

          • See, eg., the book about the alcoholic Paul “Bear” Bryant and his effort in the early ’50s to run off all your Texas A&M football players so he could bring in better ones. A few that stayed put together a reunion years later and invited Bryant. He is quoted as asking why on Earth, after the way he’d treated them, any of them would ever want to see him again.

            • Does anyone want to point out the ad hominem, followed by the false analogy, followed by a self-defeating argument?

              Other Bill, did you even want to bother refuting what I posted other than saying “macho bullshit”.

          • Hardly macho bullshit. You obviously failed to see in the explanation the coach actually allowed a great deal of leeway for the miscreants to correct their behavior. That’s called mercy. But it still punishes. That’s call justice.

            It all rounds out to a proportionate, wise, and team building solution. What coaches are supposed to do. A team isn’t a democracy.

            • Football teams and military units are not the embodiment of machismo?

              What was ad hominem about my calling a defense of silly management theories bullshit?

              If I called myself Notre Dame Bill no one would make a point by referring to Knute Rockne or George Gipp or Joe Montana or fighting Irish drunks if they felt like it?

              What’s false about pointing out that football enshrines and lionizes horrible behavior?

              I don’t like being in teams and I don’t trust teams. I don’t trust leaders. Typically, leaders manipulate those they lead for the benefit of the the leader.

              • And if you mean I was attacking Paul Bryant personally, yes, I was. Any coach of a major football operation is nothing more than a plantation boss.

                And hasn’t this web log decided teachers have no right to involve themselves in students’ non-school activities and behaviors? What right does this coach or his staff have to do anything other that teach these kids how to block and tackle? If these players were bullying someone on their facebook or twitter pages, that’s none of the school’s business, right?Remembet the kid who posted a mug shot of his principal? His principal and a cop and a football coach were nearly lynched on this web log for daring to call the kid on his conduct. Why’s this lazy football coach an ethics hero? He should be in this web log’s constitutional rights penalty box for daring to restrain these kids’ free speech.

                And high school is not the military.

                • And if the punishment is indiscriminate, it’s unfair and unethical. Just because this sort of punishment is purported “to work” doesn’t render it ethical. Here I’ll play the “ends justifying the means is no excuse” ethics card.

                  • And isn’t this called “guilt by association?” Isn’t that verboten? Maybe we should hire this football coach as President. Muslims killing people in Boston? In Afghanistan? In Kenya? No problem.Punish all the Muslims we can find in the U.S. and get them to “deal with the problem.” As long as it works, who cares?

                    I also suspect there’s tons of education and management research out there that establishes this macho bullshit is just that and it’s not effective education or management.

                    • And here’s another “effective team building strategy:” fragging. Sure, a commissioned officer gets murdered by the enlisted men, but it’s effective. It builds team morale. The enlisted men are happier afterwards and the commissioned officers behave much better. Unethical? Illegal? Immoral? Who cares, it works.

                    • Your getting off topic an hysterical now.

                      Please recall that I did identify earlier that “a defining mark of our civilization is knowing when people should be treated as individuals (most of the time) and when people should be treated as a collection (on occasion).”

                      You’ve created another false analogy to try and equate those times that individuals ought to be punished for their individual crimes and misbehavior with this instance. I need not expound.

                  • I think you are overwrought, Bill. The coach is saying that representing the school on the football team is a privilege, and from now on it needs to be earned by exemplary character rather than simply the lack of offensive character. I don’t see that as punishment. It would have been better if he had phrased it more like I did, but heck, he’s a football coach…

                  • Teams are expected to work as teams. If they fail as teams, they are punished as teams. You may recall, a short while ago, I mentioned one of the hallmarks of our society is that we do accept there are certain times that people are treated as collections, not as individuals. Team work and building teams are precisely that time.

                    Building team cohesion, trust, and a desire for team members to actively better each other is not indiscriminate if the coach feels that they, as a group, have not done their due diligence for each other, as a group.

                • It would appear, quite obviously from even a cursory reading of the article, that the coach was addressing ON SCHOOL behavior.

                  However, as representatives of that school in a very public fashion, why wouldn’t their role as representatives of that school be on the chopping block if their representation outside of the school was less than exemplary?

                  This isn’t analogous to the common student’s less than savory off campus behavior being punished by the school that we see so often blogged about here.

                  “And high school is not the military.”

                  Did someone say it was?

              • “the alcoholic Paul “Bear” Bryant”

                The ad hominem. Bear Bryant’s alcoholism is an irrelevant characteristic to his coaching success, brought up in regards to his coaching, as to though to disregard his methods, is ad hominem

                “…and his effort in the early ’50s to run off all your Texas A&M football players so he could bring in better ones.”

                False Analogy. Since we are discussing the methods and objectives of Labrum, I can only assume you brought up Bryant’s harshness and objectives as a comparison. It’s a false analogy as Labrum’s objectives were wholly to build the team up, not run people off. Not initially (as described in my original response).

                “A few that stayed put together a reunion years later and invited Bryant.”

                Self Defeating Argument. Unsuccessful and universally reviled coaches are not held in esteem by their players. To be gracious, if your analogy were to hold, then we would assume Labrum would be expected to be universally hated by his players like you assume the Aggie players under Bryant should have hated him. But they didn’t.

                “Football teams and military units are not the embodiment of machismo?”

                Certain entities in society tend to attract certain people, some of those entities more so. The entities of football and the military do not exist to be “macho”: they exist, respectively, to profess the discipline of football and to carry national policy to a lethal level on the international stage. So no, they are not the embodiment of machismo. The various efforts and tasks executed by football teams and the military happen to be the kind of things that those driven my machismo are attracted to to release their frustrations and feel “macho”. However, you are wrong in your assertion.

                “I don’t like being in teams and I don’t trust teams. I don’t trust leaders. Typically, leaders manipulate those they lead for the benefit of the the leader.”

                Then it would seem your problem is an emotional one. Which, judging by the tone of your responses, you’ve let emotion guide your entire ‘reasoning’ on this.

      • In boot camp, a single screw-up could easily (and, in the case of my recruit division, frequently did) lead to the entire unit getting punished.

        It only has to happen once or twice before you start policing the behavior of your fellows. You either remind him he’s being a fuck-up or help him catch up (in cases where it was general stupidity in classroom that got you cycled).

        Punishing a group for the failings of a few is a time-tested way of building unit cohesion.

        And in the case of this team, from what I am lead to believe from other reports, while it might have not been a majority of the team, it was certainly more than merely a couple of the player.

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