Having watched the video showing the incident that occurred between Holy Family University basketball coach John O’Conner and player Matt Kravcuk back on January 25, 2011, several times, as well as the various news bites that have been presented by the television media, it is worth looking at this incident from a critical standpoint, not just as an individual event but also as an indication of our current society.
The video clearly shows O’Conner advancing into Kravcuk, knocking him down, issuing a kick directed at Kravcuk while he is still down on the ground and then verbally cursing the player. From the perspective of the video clip, it certainly appears that O’Conner physically and verbally assaulted Kravcuk. O’Conner is reported to have apologized later that night to Kravcuk and then again on the February 24th, 2011 showing of Good Morning America (GMA); his apology was not accepted by Kravcuk.
O’Conner has attempted to defend his behavior on several points, saying that he was “trying to get them competitive” referring to the team and that the incident occurred at a 5:30 am drill after a difficult loss. In the game previous to the practice drill, the opposing team had been making fun of Holy Family’s players for not being tough enough, so O’Conner wanted to toughen up his players.
Which makes me wonder: if the team “wasn’t tough enough”, shouldn’t Coach O’Conner have recognized that problem with his players and acted on it before this ill-fated practice drill? Was he really responding to a true problem with the team or was he responding to pressure caused by the jeers of the other team – and if so, shouldn’t he be beyond basing his actions by succumbing to taunts from another team?
O’Conner can either make the claim that his behavior for this single incident was unusual, not the way he normally handle stress and that being human, he did not handle this particular stress event well; or that this is his normal method of coaching players. O’Conner has also claimed that he didn’t “kick” Kravcuk, but instead “nudged” him with his foot, because he didn’t want the player staying down on the court surface. O’Conner then threw Kravcuk out from the practice session.
His motives may have been well-intentioned as he tries to help his “struggling” team. Thankfully, he’s a basketball coach; I shudder to think how he might be inclined to teach little children to swim if he was a swimming coach! O’Conner’s actions bring to mind the idiomatic expression “Don’t kick a man when he’s down” – besides displaying bad sportsmanship, it goes against the grain of most ethical codes.
Both O’Conner and Kravcuk have hired attorneys to represent them; presumably there will be a personal injury claim lawsuit filed by Kravcuk. After all, how can Kravcuk be expected to play for a coach that has behaved the way he did? There is a good chance that the coach, already suspended, will not be coaching for some time after this event and not just for Holy Family University but for any institution of higher education. The Philadelphia District Attorney’s office is investigating the incident as a criminal complaint; if charged, tried and found guilty, one has to wonder if O’Conner will be allowed to coach an inmate team in some correctional facility.
Holy Family University will of course be further drawn into this debacle as well; they are accused of downplaying the incident and not doing enough to protect the welfare of the student.
Beyond this single incident though, I see how our society has changed in just a few decades by comparing this incident to an incident that occurred to me. Here, we have a young adult engaged in a voluntary activity, which he can choose to quit at any time. Chances are, this young man who suffered what reportedly are relatively minor physical injuries (bloody nose and what appears to be a soft-tissue wrist injury) in addition to public humiliation, may walk away with a hefty sum of money in a civil litigation case. Attorneys have already been selected and the legal battle has already begun.
Rewind to 1977, where a teenager is injured by a physical education teacher while engaged in a compulsory education. It is a gym class at Eastern Regional High School in Gibbsboro, New Jersey. The theme is gymnastics. The child has no choice as to whether to engage in gym class at the high school level; it is mandated by law. The teacher instructs the class to attempt to do a side-to-side split.
Displeased with how deep a particular student can move into the split, the teacher, without warning, comes up from behind the student, grabs her by both shoulders and violently shoves the girl down, trying to physically force her into the split. The girl cries out with the sudden pain, feeling her knees pop as tissue rips apart around her knees and ends up on the gymnasium floor. The girl realizes she has been badly injured and cries.
The gym teacher becomes angry and tells the girl to get back up. Struggling to her feet, the injured student leaves the class and heads to the nurses office. The nurse, already forewarned by gym teacher, refuses to check the student, saying that the gym teacher told her it was a sprain. The mother is called to pick up the teenager and told by the nurse that the child “fell” in class and “sprained” her knees, so there is no need to seek medical advice on the injury.
During the next three weeks, the teenager struggles to get around in school and to participate in required activities. Each time she asks her mother to take her to the doctor, the mother says no, because the nurse had indicated it was “just sprained”. By the time the mother finally agrees to take the limping teenager to see the family doctor, both knees are consistently swollen and inflamed, hot to the touch. Even leaving the school grounds early to see the doctor becomes a source of emotional pain; with about sixty students present as well as the vice principal of the school and other school officials, the music instructor, using a megaphone, verbally berates the girl for “milking the injury” and making a mountain out of a molehill.
The doctor informs the teenager and her mother that the girl will be in pain for the rest of her life as a result of the injury, which included shredded cartilage, a torn meniscus and ruptured bursa sacs. The girl’s way of life changed. The girl would be in pain whenever the seasons change or it rained. Routine activities such as riding a bike would become so painful the girl would never be able to ride a bike again.
When the girl returns to school on crutches the following day, accompanied by doctor’s notes restricting physical activity for an indefinite period of time, the music instructor apologized to the student in front of the entire band for his behavior. His apology was accepted by the student. The gym teacher simply refused to acknowledge the existence of the student she had injured and offered no such apology.
In today’s environment, this gym teacher would almost certainly have faced charges similar to Coach O’Conner. Eastern Regional High School would have been drawn into it as well, particularly because they provided a diagnosis of an injury without actually evaluating the injury and the parent’s decisions were based on their diagnosis. Lawyers would have squared off to ensure that the injured student might receive appropriate medical care and compensation for the injuries.
Instead, nothing was done in terms of legal wrangling. The gym teacher faced no repercussions; the girl’s family, having less-than-stellar health insurance and being on the edge of poverty, could not afford to pursue further medical treatment. It would be thirteen years before the girl would manage to get a job with a quality medical insurance policy to cover medical care for prior injuries, only to be told by the surgeon that the tissue around the knee was so weak that a year of strengthening would be needed before surgery could even be considered.
As a whole, our society has become increasingly litigious. Injured parties don’t wait to see the full extent of their injuries; even when the long-term impact isn’t readily apparent, lawyers are interviewed and selected. Those accused of injury likewise seek counsel, often before any suit is even filed. It’s become much like a game of chess, where players position and prepare for every eventuality. The media impacts every potential case as well, showing video clips of incidents and interviewing the parties long before cases ever make it to trial.
Somewhere, there should be a middle ground, between flatly ignoring injuries to students and turning injury events into a circus of the media and legal wranglers. Where should that middle ground be?