Just as players, by the very nature of competition, must respect the authority of officials, they must respect the authority of their coach. Authority is the legitimate use of power over others. The abuse of that power sometimes tempts us to believe that all authority is a bad thing, and that we should seek coach–player, teacher–student, and parent–child relationships that are free of authority. The truth is, if you’re a coach, you have authority over your players. It can be shaped and developed in different ways, but it can’t be avoided. For a coach, just as for a teacher or parent, to renounce authority is to abdicate responsibility.
Part of the authority of a coach comes from the nature of sport. In a team sport especially, many of the decisions, by the very nature of the game, must be made on behalf of the team by a coach. If you’ve ever played in a basketball league on a team without a coach, you know the advantage of having a coach decide who goes in the game and when, what defense to play, or who should take the last shot in a close game. Ten or fifteen people can’t make split-second decisions of that nature—they all want to be in the game or they wouldn’t be there, and they all were hall-of-fame coaches in a previous life. In that sense, a coach is an integral part of a team effort. The authority of the coach to make decisions on behalf of the whole team is greater than that of any of the players, but the coach’s authority derives from the nature of a team effort.
But the authority of a scholastic coach, and therefore the responsibility, is far greater. Whatever the entertainment and financial value of school athletics, there can be only one justification for schools fielding athletic teams—the educational value of participating on those teams for the students. Scholastic coaches are first and foremost educators, teachers of young people. They must understand the place of sport within an academic setting—and that means more than merely keeping sport from interfering with academics. It means that sport ought to contribute to the educational goals of the school. If coaches are often granted greater authority over young people’s lives and greater autonomy in their work than other teachers (a discrepancy that probably bears some serious rethinking), that should mean not that winning football games is more important than learning geometry, but that coaches have a greater responsibility to broadly influence the lives of students. Simply put, more authority, more responsibility. As we discussed in part I, teachers of all kinds are moral educators, whether they acknowledge it or not, but there’s certainly no getting around it for coaches.