By Victor Martin, Jr.
The latest accusation of domestic abuse perpetrated by a professional athlete surfaced last month, when a doctor reported that NBA player Dwight Howard used “excessive force” while physically disciplining his 6-year old son.
It was the fifth major story to come out this year about a pro athlete allegedly abusing someone close to them. National Football League players Adrian Peterson, Ray Rice and Greg Hardy, and MMA fighter Jonathan Koppenhaver, have all been in the spotlight, igniting conversations across the nation about whether high-contact sports cultivate a culture of violence.
In Long Beach, a town with a long history of sending prep athletes on to pro stardom, some local football coaches are choosing to address the violence issue directly; chipping away at what they describe as a culture of aggression in the sport.
And they are starting young.
“I’m a big fan of the NFL, but overall I don’t believe that the guys are role models anymore,” said Gabriel Villaobos, head coach of the “tiny mite” team – they are the youngest age group (5-7 year olds) in the North Long Beach Pop Warner football league.
The task of teaching such small children and instilling them with a moral code of conduct, said the coach, is not easy. But it beats the alternative.
“Discipline goes a long way in life and I just try to break bad habits at this young age because if you don’t break them now, it’s going to be [hard] to break them as they get older,” said Villalobos.
Being disciplined on the football field at an early age, he added, can pay dividends down the road for players, in other areas of their life.
Whether or not the recent behaviors exhibited by NFL players off the field are viewed as isolated incidents or part of a deeper problem, Villalobos said pro league officials could do better by taking a page from his pop-warner book.
“They need to be more involved in their player’s lives,” Villalobos said. “They need to be more on to their Instagram, and just monitor their lives.”
Despite the bad rap football has garnered from the recent domestic violence cases, not all parents who let their kids play football blame the sport itself for giving rise to the violence.
“I believe that (behavior) is already in you and if that type of aggression is already in you, it’s going to come out in some way,” said one parent of a North Long Beach “mighty mite,” the 7-9 year-old team.
The responsibility of teaching right from wrong shouldn’t fall on the coaches, added the parent, but should start at home.
Others argue that precisely because kids are so impressionable, it is critical that the right people are in coaching positions starting at the earliest ages, to avoid what we see happening today in the NFL.
“Part of the hiring process (for coaches) is not just their knowledge of football; it’s about what impact they would like to make in their community,” said Matelita Asuega, president of the NLB pop warner league. “We are always looking for someone who wants to be a life coach,” she added.
The pop warner league has been a part of North Long Beach’s community fabric for years, said Asuega, and with that connection comes a sense of responsibility to teach kids the importance of being good people, and not just good football players.
“Our coaches always talk to kids about domestic violence and street violence,” Asuega said. “That built up frustration from class or school — save that for six o’clock. You come on the field and that’s where you let the frustration out.”
If recent events in the NFL prove anything, said Antonio Pierce, head football coach at Long Beach Polytechnic High School, it is that the violence being encouraged between the lines can sometimes seep into the private sphere. Pierce, a former linebacker who played nine seasons in the NFL, should know.
“A lot of factors go into it, but obviously, when you’re dealing with a violent sport those characteristics are hard to turn on and off,” Pierce said.
While he suggested that on-the-field violence and off-the-field incidents are linked to a certain degree, Pierce said he believes such incidents also have much to do with a player’s personal background and upbringing. A majority of players in the league, he noted, come from economically poor households, and may not have had a positive male role model growing up.
Partly for that reason, said Pierce, some NFL players lose sight of the fact that they are role models. Which is why Pierce makes it a point to remind his high school athletes that, even at their level, they are much more than just football players.
“We always talk about what’s going on in life — not just high school, but in the NFL and in the world. The good part about it and the sad part about it is, you can look at someone like Ray Rice and say, ‘Is that the path you want to go down?’”