Steinberg: Threatening Hirst is a coward's act

Sports has a history of stimulating overzealous fans and boosters to take out their fury over a disappointing season on a coach or athletic director.

Coaches have had their homes defaced, tires slashed, animals killed, children ridiculed because they let down the faithful. We read these stories with the comfort of knowing that the locales are Alabama or West Texas and feel reassured it would never happen here. It only occurs in places with little sophistication and values that are unbalanced.

When Newport Harbor High boys' basketball coach Larry Hirst received criminal threats including a note on his wife's car that reportedly read, "Leave, die or go away," after losing efforts in the Sunset League the last two seasons, Newport Beach mirrored West Texas.

Hirst had success earlier in his career, his 2001-2002 team won the Sunset League championship. But memory of sports success is short-lived and ephemeral and on March 23, Hirst resigned his post.

Is this the message that we can afford to send to the campus and larger community — that overzealous thugs can traumatize a coach and his family in their private lives and force the coach to resign?

Obviously these harassing tactics were the work of an individual or small group and in no way reflective of parents or fans of Newport Harbor. It does raise the question of why schools have sports programs and what they are designed to teach.

Sports participation can be an invaluable molder of young lives. Values like self-respect, self-discipline, teamwork, courage under pressure, are invaluable life lessons. Sports at their best can inculcate these character building traits. Sports are an elective, an extra-curricular program to provide learning opportunities.

When winning becomes exalted above the learning and character building aspects of participation — ugly results occur.

Our children go to school to learn specific skills. I've stressed to my own children that character and empathy are the qualities that I am most concerned that they develop. As parents we are responsible for promoting values.

Many times parents care more about the success of their children in sports than the kids do.

Type A parents may see the success of their children and their teams in sports as a mark of status. Failure is an embarrassment. They may use their children's sports experiences as an escape from their own lives.

The experience is supposed to be the children's.

Obviously we want children that know how to compete and succeed in a Social Darwin world. But to terrorize a coach and his family when their team is not winning is a coward's act.

Coaches at every level sacrifice to try and help athletes. High school sports are not exactly the way to accumulate a Trump-type level of wealth, and the hours are long.

I applaud Principal Michael Vossen's decision to suspend the basketball program in the wake of these threats. I am the son of a long-time principal in the Los Angeles City School District and know well how much pressure that kind of decision engenders and how many interests have to be balanced.

Vossen is taking a decisive and brave stance to respond to a toxic situation in a principled manner. He is standing up for the true goals of education. He is reaffirming the underlying values of what education is supposed to teach. It is a move that will cause temporary sacrifice for the athletes involved. But the basketball program can be quickly reestablished with a more reasonable relationship with fans and boosters. And the outstanding educational experience which Newport Harbor provides can be preserved.

LEIGH STEINBERG is a renowned sports agent, author, advocate, speaker and humanitarian. His column appears weekly. Follow Leigh on Twitter @steinbergsports or blog.steinbergsports.com.

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