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Punishing The Team: Athletic Immunity From Real Discipline

Teacher: I heard Elliot scored the winning goal in yesterday’s game.

Dean: Yes, you should have been there to see it. We’re going to the state tournament next week.

Teacher: Wonderful, though I’d like to know why Elliot was playing in the game.

Dean: Well, Elliot has had a difficult year, but we felt that keeping him out of the game would have been unfair to the team.

Teacher: I see. Would you say that putting him in the game was unfair to anyone?

Dean: I can see you’re upset. You obviously think it was unfair to someone. Yourself, perhaps?

Teacher: And his other teachers. And to Elliot himself, too.

Dean: How was it unfair to you?

Teacher: I’m no fan of fairness. Fairness isn’t a virtue. Justice is, though, and I think it was unjust to put him in the game.

Dean: Would you say it was merciful to put him in the game?

Teacher: No. Indulgent, but not merciful.

Dean: I take it you’d like to see the full weight of the law come down on Elliot.

Teacher: I’d like to some weight of the law come down on him.

Dean: I think some weight of the law has come down on him.

Teacher: Elliot has been out of dress code all year. He skips chapel three days a week. He’s been written up for plagiarizing papers, cheating on tests, bullying younger students, joking about sodomy during class, vandalizing the restroom… And his punishment has been what?

Dean: He was suspended for two days for the vandalism.

Teacher: And he came back to school bragging that he’d stayed home and played Fortnite. Then he was allowed to make up the quizzes he missed on the previous day. It cost him nothing. It wasn’t painful at all.

Dean: Pain is very important to you.

Teacher: Discipline should be painful. By its very nature, discipline is painful. If it’s not painful, it’s not discipline.

Dean: But who should discipline be painful for? We could have kicked Elliot off the soccer team, but that would have been painful for the team. I don’t see what good it does to punish the soccer team for something one player did.

Teacher: You know that the game of soccer itself works that way, though, right? If a player gets a red card, they’re kicked off the field and their whole team suffers?

Dean: That’s different.

Teacher: If a father of four is driving drunk, gets into a wreck, and kills someone, should he not be sent to jail because it would mean “punishing his kids”?

Dean: That’s different.

Teacher: It’s not.

Dean: It is.

Teacher: It’s really not. Soccer is the only thing about this school which Elliot takes seriously, and there’s already guidelines in the student handbook which dictate that a student who is flunking half their classes can’t play sports—let alone a student who’s got the kind of behavior problems that Elliot has.

Dean: The student handbook indicates that a student who is flunking their classes may be taken off a sports team. It’s not required.

Teacher: So why the exception for Elliot?

Dean: If we took Elliot off the soccer team, I think he’d only become worse.

Teacher: Why?

Dean: He’d be angry and lash out.

Teacher: We’re not going to punish him because he won’t like it?

Dean: This is a classical Christian school. We’re interested in transformation, not punishment for punishment’s sake. If you want to transform someone, you have to get to their heart.

Teacher: Punishment can be very transformational, as can the fear of punishment.

Dean: But we all want this school to be a nice place to be. We don’t want students to live in fear. We don’t want them to obey the rules simply because they’re afraid of us.

Teacher: But we do want them to obey the rules. There’s a little cloud of disobedience which surrounds Elliot and follows him wherever he goes. Other students see the way he fearlessly breaks the rules and it inspires them to do the same. It’s making this school a not very nice place to be. It breeds cynicism in the hearts of students who do follow the rules and it demoralizes the teachers who are ultimately helpless to do anything about it.

Dean: I think you’re overselling your point. This school had behavior issues before Elliot enrolled and it will go on having behavior issues after he graduates. But that’s true of every school. Elliot isn’t the lynchpin in some cabal of rebellion.

Teacher: Agreed, but that’s no reason to throw in the towel.

Dean: I’m not throwing in the towel. What I want you to see here, though, is that Elliot’s heart is the problem, and unless we get to his heart, we’re not going to change his behavior.

Teacher: Painful punishment gets at the heart.

Dean: I disagree.

Teacher: Then you disagree with St. Paul.

Dean: Oh, please.

Teacher: “No discipline seems pleasant at the time, but painful. Later on, however, it produces a harvest of righteousness and peace for those who have been trained by it.” Unpleasant discipline is physical. A harvest of righteousness is spiritual. That’s the order—physical suffering, spiritual gains. We do need to get to Elliot’s heart, but the path to righteousness is through unpleasant discipline.

Dean: If that interpretation were sound, federal penitentiaries would be filled with saints.

Teacher: Fair enough. The harvest of righteousness is for those who have been “trained” by painful discipline, not for those who have fought against it tooth and nail. I am not suggesting that teachers go around coldly, indifferently making student lives miserable.

Dean: Then what are you suggesting?

Teacher: Actually getting Elliot’s attention.

Dean: By punishing the team?

Teacher: If that’s what you want to call it. Look, the team understands the situation. They’re not stupid. They know what the student handbooks says. They know all the rules Elliot has broken. They know he’s the best player on the team—and they know the coaches know all this, and the teachers know all this, and the administrators know all this. And if we let Elliot play because we’re more concerned about winning than justice, they’re going to know that, too. If the team has to lose so that Elliot can learn to behave, it’s a trade worth making.

1 thought on “Punishing The Team: Athletic Immunity From Real Discipline”

  1. Ah yes, the “You’re punishing the team” fallacy. This is a form of gaslighting. In reality, Elliot and young men like him punish their teams with their vicious behavior. I speak as the junior high boy’s basketball coach at my classical Christian school. I’ve suspended players from participating on the court for poor behavior, including “star” players. A school with Deans in charge of discipline is a school experiencing mission drift.

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