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Shanley administration caves, fires baseball coach because of "threatening" text

by Mike McFeely

As a young athlete, and I use that term very loosely, I made the mistake of complaining about coaches twice to my father. The amazing thing was I chose to do it a second time.

The first came after an Alexandria VFW baseball practice, during which the coach was hitting ground balls at me with increasing speed and ever-more-difficult short hops. It did not go well. After practice, I griped to dad about the coach's tactics.

"Were you making the plays cleanly?" he asked.

No, I replied.

"Then you obviously needed the practice. What's the problem?"

End of complaint No. 1.

The second time came after a high school basketball practice my senior year. The Alexandria Cardinals of 1983-84 were not good and the players (and, probably more accurately, parents of players) were beginning to get restless about who was playing how much and how this sinking ship could be righted (the fact is, it could not be righted because we were short, slow and untalented). I brought up some of the fix-it theories at the dinner table.

"Shut up and play," was dad's response.

But ..., I tried to interject before being cut off.

"Don't get mixed up in all that BS. He's the coach. You're the player. Shut up and play." 

End of complaint No. 2.

I bring this up not to paint my late father in any sort of tough-guy, tough-love light. Because that was not the case. Dad was a softie for his children. I always felt he'd do anything he could for me. 

No, I bring it up because I hope there are still parents out there like my dad, parents who will once in awhile tell their kids the truth when it comes to youth and high school athletics. I believe there are some, but their legion is dwindling.

I bring you the case of the baseball coach at Fargo's private Catholic high school, Shanley. Joel Swanson tells The Forum newspaper of Fargo that his contract was not renewed  because he sent a text message to players that was interpreted as "threatening in tone and wording."

Shanley won the North Dakota Class A state championship last spring (despite a 10-12 season) and Swanson says he sent a text message encouraging players to work out this winter in order to defend that title. Swanson says he was told by Shanley activities director Randy Nelson and superintendent Dr. Michael Smith that a parent complained about the text message. According to The Forum, Nelson confirmed Swanson's contract was not renewed, but declined to give a reason.

Swanson says it was because of a text message that included the following:

“We are two months into open gyms and obviously all of you are satisfied with last year’s title,” the message reads. “We are the team that will have a target on our backs. We are the team that everyone throws their ace against. We are the team everyone wants to beat this year. I am sick of stupid excuses to not come to open gym. … If you want to be an athlete commit to it. One hour a week is not too much to ask if you want to be an athlete.

“If you make an excuse not to come then you are telling me what kind of athlete you are. I cannot require you to come but I thought I would have a group excited to try and defend a title. Not to make excuses and not care. Some of you are not even in a sport right now, which is even more pathetic. … I will not send out another message like this, but some of you may be in for a rude awakening when the season comes and you are not in the lineup due to a younger player that puts in the time.”
It's a head-scratcher. The coach was asking for one hour, one day a week. He was honest with the kids, saying that if they didn't work out this winter that might affect their playing time come spring. He was doing what coaches do: motivating his players. Swanson's mistake was probably not that he tried to motivate his players, but that he put it down in words that kids could show their parents. Because here is the first question that popped into my head when I read the content of the text message: How are these words different that what a coach might say at the end of a practice? If at the end of a bad practice a coach yells at his players and asks for better effort or it might cost some playing time, is that "threatening in tone and wording?"

Other obvious question: How little spine does the Shanley administration have if a parent complains about a text message and they can the coach?

I appreciate my dad's approach more every time I hear one of these horror stories. This Shanley parent would've been better off looking at Little Johnny and asking, "Have you been working out to get ready for the season?"

If the answer came back no, the parent should have said, "Then I don't see the problem."

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