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Youth Sports Heroes of the Month: James Whitney and Kyle Christopher (Allegany, New York)

"Two boys who just wanted to play baseball"

It was only the second inning, but the Allegany-Limestone High School Gators varsity baseball team was already losing big.

Apparently angered that the Wellsville High School Lions had bunted with a 6-0 lead, the Gators' coach went to the mound and instructed his pitcher, James Whitney, to hit the next batter, Sawyer Korb. Worse yet, the coach reportedly told Whitney to throw at Korb's head.Coach holding baseball

Whitney refused, dropped the ball on the mound, and sprinted to the dugout. The Olean (N.Y.) Times Herald reported that Gators relief pitcher Kyle Christopher also refused the coach's command to bean Korb, who struck out on the next pitch.

Whitney won immediate support from his mother, who left the stands, walked behind the dugout, and shouted twice, "You did the right thing." Wendy Korb, the batter's mother, later called the pitcher a hero for sparing her son because, she said, four concussions in various sports had left him vulnerable to serious injury if he were hit in the head again.

"This is not about moms and dads and coaches," Ms. Korb said afterwards, "It's about two boys who just wanted to play baseball."

Respect is earned

Success on the scoreboard begins with mutual respect among youth sports coaches and their players. Respect leads players to obey their coach, and experienced athletes know that disobedience can divide a team.

Before they reach high school, however, athletes have also learned values from their parents, teachers, coaches, and other influential role models. When they enter the locker room, players do not check their values at the door.

When a coach's command offends a player's values, the player shows personal strength by saying "no," even when benching or other consequences might follow. Intentionally throwing at batters may be an unspoken part of baseball when multi-millionaire adults take the field in the major leagues, but interscholastic ballplayers are amateurs, not professionals. Athletes with solid values know that ordering a player to risk deliberately injuring an opponent is intolerable in high school sports, as it should be in sport at any level.

Leadership depends on respect, but an adage reminds us that "respect is not given; it is earned."  True leaders, says Pulitzer Prize winning historian and journalist Garry Wills, know that "people follow most reliably when they are convinced that what they are doing is right." "Leadership is not about commanding obedience," adds biographer Alan Axelrod, "It is about persuasion, the winning of hearts and minds."

The Allegany-Limestone Gators' coach failed as a leader that day by forcing his two pitchers to confront right and wrong in the heat of competition. By choosing their values over their coach, James Whitney and Kyle Christopher demonstrated that, without earned respect, coaches do not hold on to their players' hearts and minds for very long.

Sources: John Anderson & Paul A. Jannace, Coach Benched for Allegedly Ordering Beaning of Player, Wellsville (N.Y.) Daily Reporter, May 20, 2010; Paul Jannace, Furlong Probe Still Ongoing, Wellsville (N.Y.) Daily Reporter, May 21, 2010; John Schiano, New York: Allegany-Limestone Baseball Coach Suspended, http://www.maxpreps.com/news/VUN1imdCEd-lugAcxJTdpg/new-york--allegany-l... (visited Apr. 5, 2011); Alan Axelrod, Nothing to Fear: Lessons in Leadership from FDR, p. 92 (2003); Garry Wills, Certain Trumpets: The Call of Leaders, p. 18 (1994).

Posted May 1, 2011