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VALLEY / VENTURA COUNTY SPORTS | ERIC SONDHEIMER

Suspension Sends Wrong Message

September 24, 2000|ERIC SONDHEIMER

A precedent-setting decision that holds coaches responsible for the off-the-field conduct of athletes has gone largely unchallenged, with little debate on its merits and no discussion on its ramifications.

With great secrecy, the Oak Park Unified School District imposed a four-game suspension on Coach Dick Billingsley for his role in an overnight summer passing league trip to Santa Ynez last July that went bad.

Eighteen members of Oak Park's football team drank alcohol on the grounds of an elementary school and at private homes, where they were being housed.

As part of an agreement reached with parents, the players were suspended for two games, placed on probation for a year, required to attend an alcohol intervention program and complete 30 hours of community service.

Not until Oak Park's opener on Sept. 8 did the public learn Billingsley also was punished. He still coaches the Eagles during practice but is banished from the sideline until the fifth game.

Billingsley said he has been instructed not to comment on the decision because "it's a personnel issue."

But 45 teachers and faculty members at Oak Park refused to be muzzled. They signed a petition in support of Billingsley, the Eagles' coach for 11 years.

And 37 team members wrote in a letter published last Sunday in The Times that "the bottom line is we are responsible for our own actions and none of the coaches should in any way be held responsible for our decisions."

Billingsley specifically warned his players before the trip that consuming alcohol was forbidden.

"We preach certain guidelines and rules to abide by and hope they will uphold those standards," he said.

Three previous times Oak Park made the trip with no incidents. Billingsley trusted the players to represent their school and families in a positive manner. They broke the rules.

Billingsley has a track record for not tolerating teenage drinking of any kind. For him to be given a four-game suspension because his players made an unacceptable choice off the field is unwarranted disciplinary action.

There has been a debate waging for years in the college ranks about holding coaches responsible for players' actions away from the athletic field. When one program repeatedly has students violating school rules or being arrested for criminal behavior, coaches should be held accountable, since they are the ones who recruited the athletes and offered the scholarships.

But in high school, athletes are mostly minors and under the direct supervision of their parents. A coach is in charge at practice, games and trips. A coach can even stretch his or her influence off the field, imposing punishment for violating team rules.

But by choosing to discipline Billingsley for the actions of his players, Oak Park has gone where few have traveled.

If the district is saying Billingsley did not properly supervise his players on a school trip, then that's a legitimate issue to explore.

But Billingsley was not derelict in his supervisory duties. He can't be held liable for player conduct every second, especially when players were staying at separate private homes.

School officials have concluded otherwise. Billingsley was held responsible for his players' behavior, which means other coaches who take athletic teams on such trips to Las Vegas, Hawaii or Fresno and stay in hotel rooms might have to reconsider the wisdom of a trip because they could face disciplinary action for an athlete's misconduct based on Oak Park's reasoning.

Complicating the matter has been the secrecy imposed by school officials surrounding Billingsley's punishment. All that has done is add confusion and set the stage for heated disagreements in the future unless a clear policy is articulated.

In a positive way, the Oak Park incident might have taught some lessons.

The players wrote in their letter, "We have grown as individuals, we have grown as a team and we hope that the example we set from here on out will help Oak Park grow as a community."

And what has Billingsley learned?

"I'm never going to take another overnight trip," he said.

*

Eric Sondheimer's column appears Wednesday and Sunday. He can be reached at (818) 772-3422 or eric.sondheimer@latimes.com

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