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In Michigan City, Language Matters

By Lavender December 22, 2008

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A couple of years ago, a Michigan City, Ind., teacher paired two 10-year-old boys together on a science project. One was an excellent athlete; the other was a bit effeminate. The athlete’s friends teased him about the partner, but his parents encouraged him to become friends with the less-popular child.

One day the boys were tossing a football around near a pool. As boys do, they began wrestling. A few people saw them; somehow, a story grew that they wrestled naked. Next came taunting that the athletic boy was “gay,” a “homo,” “queer.” Typical stuff, unfortunately, for 10-year-old boys.

Except that the rumors and ribbing came from two adults: the young boy’s baseball coaches.

The insinuations and heckling continued for two years. Once, during a baseball draft, another coach picked the young athlete in an early round. The first coach announced to the room full of adults that the other coach should also select the second boy. “They have a ‘special relationship,’“ he smirked.

The athletic boy’s grades slid. Last June, he began having headaches. One night he woke up, unable to see. Alarmed, his sister told their parents that for two years a few other boys—and adult coaches—had been calling her brother a fag. “Everyone knows,” she said.

The boy told his parents everything. At a baseball tournament in Kentucky, he said, he had prayed to God for one thing: that his coaches would let up, and allow him to enjoy the weekend.

That adult men would, in this day and age, abuse a young boy that way is frightening. But what happened next is even more astonishing.

The boy’s parents complained to the Michigan City Parks & Recreation board. After a two-month investigation, Parks Superintendent Darrell Garbacik suspended the two men—youth travel baseball head coach Scott Kaletha and assistant coach Mike Schwanke—for one year. Garbacik said that the coaches allowed inappropriate language to be used by adults and boys on teams under their direction.

The coaches denied wrongdoing. Kaletha called the comments “joking and humor,” adding it was “just boys being boys.” According to the local News-Dispatch paper, he said he often engages in name-calling with players. He added that when he was young, coaches often used words like “homo” and “fag.”

Michigan City is a former manufacturing town of 30,000 on Lake Michigan, 50 miles east of Chicago, now reinventing itself as a tourist destination. Many of its residents rose to Kaletha’s defense. They said that he donated his time generously to youth sports, and taught skills well. While they admitted he could be hard-headed, and occasionally yelled at umpires and encouraged unsportsmanlike behavior, they continued to support him. Election-style lawn signs with the coaches’ names sprang up around town.

In late October, the Parks & Recreation board met to discuss the coaches’ appeal. The nine-hour meeting ended at 3:30 AM. Board members heard testimony, considered exhibits, and took notes. Then, by a 2-2 vote, they overturned the suspension. One father said, “I’ve coached with Scott Kaletha for eight years. Thank you for righting this wrong.”

Adam Parkhouse—sports editor of the News-Dispatch and a baseball coach himself—says, “I was born and raised here. That decision really surprised me. Coaches and adults are not supposed to act the way these coaches did. You’re supposed to be a mentor, a teacher. You’re not supposed to allow or take part in boorish behavior.”

Yet, just as disturbing as the behavior itself is the fact that, despite extensive local publicity, the case did not galvanize the gay community. There was little discussion about the impact of taunting a young boy—whether gay or, as in the case of the athlete, straight—with homophobic slurs. “I’m surprised no one stood up and spoke out on behalf of that,” Parkhouse says. “There’s no real gay presence here, but now that I think about it, it’s unfortunate the gay rights issue hasn’t really come up at all.”

In early November, the Park Board reversed its stand on the coaches’ appeals. Its final ruling, that the original suspensions would stand, came after the board attorney reviewed Robert’s Rules of Order.

Of course, this story is not about parliamentary procedure, the gruesome behavior of adults, or the role of sports in Michigan City. It’s about the power of words, and 10-year-old boys.

“My son still loves baseball,” the boy’s mother said. “He will be a stronger person through all this. But I’ve learned how important it is for children to look up to adults to do the right thing. We have to say this type of language is not OK.”

And, she notes, “While all this was happening, the other kids didn’t think it was funny. They didn’t like it at all.”

Dan Woog is a journalist, educator, soccer coach, gay activist, and author of the “Jocks” series of books on gay male athletes. Visit his website at www.danwoog.com. He can be reached care of this publication or at [email protected]

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