May 7, 2010

Sportsmanship program successful, but costly

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Call it a sign of the times.

Concerns about sportsmanship from high school athletes - and coaches - never have been higher. But some school districts and states are unable to implement a tool proven to be effective in curtailing such unbecoming behavior.

The reason? They can't afford to.

Such is the case in North Carolina and Tennessee, two states that would love to make the S.T.A.R. program - a web-based course by Learning Through Sports that teaches sportsmanship through character development - mandatory for all athletes and coaches but can't due to finances.

The course costs $2 per student.

"It's a great program," Mark Dreibelbis, the assistant executive director for the North Carolina High School Athletic Association who serves as the supervisor of officials and director of student services said.

"(Athletes) learn basic core values. Why are you playing? What's it mean to be part of the team? How do you be a student first, athlete second? Don't compromise your ideals to win," Dreibelbis said. "It really centers on the consequences of your actions. If you had it to do it over again, would you? If I'm ever faced with this situation again, how am I going to modify this behavior?"

In North Carolina, any player or coach who is disqualified or ejected from a game for unsportsmanlike behavior - committing an act that requires a suspension - is required to complete the course before returning to his or her sport.

Dreibelbis, who has been involved in youth sports for more than three decades, would like to make the course mandatory for all, but can't.

In North Carolina, there are roughly 125,000 kids who participate in high school sports.

"From the simple math, we can't ask our board to make this mandatory," Dreibelis said. "We don't have a quarter of a million dollars and our schools certainly don't. Everybody is having to carefully fiscally managed their programs. To put a mandate ... we just would not be able to."

Such realities are tough for Brian Shulman, the founder and CEO of Learning Through Sports.

"It's a bit frustrating," he said. "I founded this company for helping kids."

Learning Through Sports started more than a decade ago using sports-based programs to help kids with reading and math.

Shulman soon realized that sportsmanship and character development were not being addressed.

"Anybody who has kids in youth sports has seen it," he said. "I saw a bunch of things with my own kids."

Through a grant from the Southeastern Conference, Shulman created the S.T.A.R. program - which is built on the four facets of "Stop, Think, Act, and Replay."

The program takes about an hour to complete, reviewing sportsmanship issues interactively, using a lot of pictures and videos. And it's best used as proactive rather than a reactive tool.

Shulman's group started with a product for third graders but eventually moved up to the high school level.

And, the program has seen success. Alabama (which along with Mississippi mandates the program for all athletes) saw a drop of disqualifications by more than 50 percent after it was implemented.

Shulman, in an effort to reach more kids, says he keeps the price as low as he can and offers even greater discounts for bulk purchases. He also is attempting to work with larger companies to serve as sponsors.

The goal, he says, is to get more kids in the program.

"I don't care who gets the credit, I just know it's working," he said. "We used to have these numbers (of disqualifications) now we have these numbers," he said.

Dreibelbis agreed.

"It's a great program," he said.

One he's trying to find a way to afford.

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