United Niagara Football Remains in a State of Fracture and Dysfunction

James Ryan

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“A fracture is the separation of an object or material into two, or more, pieces under the action of stress.”

With so many rumours and half-truths floating around in what has been an uncomfortable, and at times, unprofessional state of recruitment in the Niagara Regional youth football system, I think it’s important to point out that in spite of the many incredible changes and transformations that have occurred within each of the separate organizations as of late, nothing in terms of the overall perception or status within the community has in fact changed, which is very unfortunate, but also, not entirely unexpected.

For starters, I should probably mention that I am currently the only youth football coach in the entire Niagara Region who has ever sat on the executive committees for both the Niagara Spears and now the Niagara Storm, where I am currently volunteering my time as both a coach and as the communications & media manager. I was also a coach for two years in the Niagara Regional Minor Football Association (2008 – 2009), three years in the Niagara Falls youth indoor touch football league (2007 – 2010), and I am currently entering into my third year as a coach for the Niagara Storm youth football organization (2010, 2012 – 2013).

In terms of experience, I am probably very close to the bottom of the totem pole compared to the many other great coaches in the Niagara Region who are either involved with the NRMFA, the Spears, the Generals, the Storm, or even those who coach at the high school level. Anyone who knows me, knows that the only reason I even got involved in coaching in the first place was because of my son, who no longer is able to play due to concussions sustained outside of football. I never played in the pros. I never played in University. I never even officially played in high school. I make no attempts to pump myself up to be more than what I am. I don’t need to. I am proud that I can bring forth a completely different point of view than by those who have only been raised and conditioned solely in a football culture that in certain situations, no longer serves to the best interests of our modern youth – the kids who will one day become the leaders of tomorrow in an uncertain world.

I’ve never been bound by the limitations in my life (trust me, there have been many) or by the perceptions that others may have of me. As such, I know I have a way about me that can sometimes rub people the wrong way, but please note that I don’t necessarily set out to do that. Not as a prime objective anyway. It’s more of a by-product than anything else – one that I accept as a part of being who I am. In fact, anyone who only knows me from my writing alone might be surprised to learn that I can actually be a pretty funny guy who enjoys life and makes a living by specifically being nice and helping others. I have spent my entire adult life working in human service, and I will continue to do so until the day I die. It’s not a great way to get rich, but helping others shouldn’t be a money-motivated venture anyway.

Then again, I can also be a pretty big asshole, and I’m not ashamed to admit it.

Sometimes in order to effect positive change in a convoluted situation, you have to be willing to sacrifice yourself before anything else. You hate me? That’s okay. There’s likely a very good reason why you feel the way you do. And it probably all started by my voicing an opinion on a situation that I felt didn’t place the needs of our kids before the egos of the adults who have been put in charge of mentoring and influencing them. As a father, particularly one who has raised two tremendous athletes – a boy and a girl, and as someone who never really played a lot of team sports growing up (frankly, I was turned away from team sports by just about every coach I ever had), I was appalled to see how little had changed from the time when I was a kid until now. And there was just no way I was going to sit back in silence and let my kids face this disappointment alone by allowing the attitudes and egos of certain “coaches” to deter them from participating in sports, much in the same way that had happened to me. But who am I to say that things should be different? What gives me the right to stand up for what I believe in? Who voted me as the voice of the alternative thinker?

As it turns out, making a positive change doesn’t require asking for permission or approval. Thirty years of martial arts training has taught me everything that I need to know, particularly about sportsmanship and hard work. I also understand honour. I understand competition. And most of all, I understand the lost values of friendship, teamwork and fitness. And yes, I’m still learning, so I still have a long way to go.

I don’t mind being the underdog. I believe enthusiasm is contagious. I hope to infect positive energy and a fighting spirit into each of my players. I hope to teach them how to stand up to the bullies in their life, whether they be on the football field, or in the boardroom (yes, adults can be bullies too). The ability to stand up for yourself and others is the greatest quality that we can teach kids today in my opinion. That’s how I approached being a parent, and that’s how I approach being a coach.

Throughout my years as a writer, I have learned that it doesn’t necessarily matter what I say or do, because there will always be people out there who will agree and disagree with my points of view and many will dislike me as a result. So I guess my feeling these days is that I really have nothing to lose by taking a bigger stance against some of the largely ignored issues that I see, particularly in the world of youth sports – hence the reason why I am now with the Niagara Storm. And make no mistake, I am not involved with this organization by accident, nor by default. I am not volunteering hundreds of hours a year supporting the Niagara Storm because no other organization would have me. I am here because for the past several years, I have been a firsthand witness to some incredibly shameful behaviour in what is predominantly an unpoliced and unaccountable culture. When coaches can get away with putting their hands on an opposing team’s player, and then nobody is willing to step up and say, “Hey, this guy shouldn’t be coaching youth sports anymore,” then I believe that there’s a serious problem with our priorities and with how we’re preparing our kids to stand up against a tyrannic leadership.

We’re basically telling our kids to suck it up and take it because that’s the way the world is.

I truly believe that each one of the coaches and executive members in the Niagara Storm all possess one major commonality – a sincere focus on the well-being and development of their players. They (we) believe in developing and teaching the players. That’s the beautiful part of coaching – not just taking ready-made athletes and then focusing on the X’s and O’s and the winning of games. The Storm understands, that with the dream of someday playing a sport professionally, which many of the coaches have personally done, comes a lot of hard work and mental preparation. But the likelihood of that happening is slim, and as such, children must also be prepared for a future without sports. As children, it’s not about what league they play in or how many rings they have on their fingers. Not at this age. It’s about playing with their friends, having fun, but most of all – learning.

They’re kids! Winning is nice and it sure is fun to do, but you can’t tell me that with the proper level of coaching, losing isn’t a much greater character builder than winning ever could be.

Another misconception is that the Storm players are “lesser” athletes than any of the other players in the Region simply because they play on a team with less history attached to it. Given that the Storm are only a few years old as an organization, it’s clear that this may have been the case in the early stages of growth, but with the recent successes and advancements by the organization, it’s obvious that the Storm are now an organization that deserve a lot more respect than what people are willing to give them.

But with success, come those who are threatened by the success of others.

“Insecurity is a feeling of general unease or nervousness that may be triggered by perceiving of oneself to be vulnerable in some way, or a sense of vulnerability or instability which threatens one’s self-image or ego.”

And no, despite what you might think of me, that’s not a direct shot at any one organization in particular. That’s really just a shot at a very small minority of individuals who just so happen to be involved in those organizations. And probably shouldn’t be.

With that being said, I personally owe Niagara Spears JV Head Coach, Mark Antonelli an apology. I heard a rumour from certain Storm parents that he had been calling Storm players at home in an attempt to recruit them for the Spears – not that there’s necessarily anything wrong with that (all is fair in love and war, right?), but from the parents perspective, they were shocked and offended that he had access to their personal phone numbers, which they assumed meant that because of his status as a teacher at Blessed Trinity in Grimsby, he must of accessed this information through school records. This of course would have been highly unethical, but in the end, it was only speculation and there was absolutely no solid proof to support this theory. Sorry Mark.

Another rumour stated that Coach Antonelli was making promises to certain Storm players, who if they jumped ship so to speak, they would be guaranteed a starting position on the Spears. This has also been unproven, and if anything, it has since been declared that this was possibly the action of one of his assistants and not Coach Antonelli himself. This is where I owe him another apology.

My immediate knee-jerk reaction when I heard this news was one of…belief, and so I thought, “What about the current Spears players? Don’t they get a chance to prove themselves to the new coach? Are these loyal and proud veteran players of the Spears family just supposed to lose out without so much as a chance to prove themselves by way of a standard try-out process?” I was both confused and annoyed.

Having had met with some of these outstanding athletes who once all played with my son during his final year as a football player and as the captain of the Bantam Spears, I knew how it would look if I warned them about what was happening. I knew that the reaction by the Spears would be full-blown denial and hatred towards myself and of course, the Storm for associating themselves with me. But on the flip-side, I knew that these kids all deserved better and that the Storm could have at the very least, given them a fair chance at making a team in the fairest possible way – a try-out. To say that this was a moral dilemma on my part would be a major understatement. I tried to recruit a few of the Spears players as a result, honestly with the intention of helping them, but in the end, even kids at this age know that all they want to do is play with their friends. And frankly, I don’t blame them and I feel almost ashamed for even asking any of them to join up with the Storm. Kids don’t need coaches pushing them into making these kinds of decisions. They’re more than capable of making them on their own. This isn’t a University level of playing, where aggressive recruitment tactics become the norm.

Without making excuses, let’s just say that the Spears, as an organization, have been less than supportive of the success that the Storm have experienced over this past year, with the Storm JV team going undefeated and making it to their first ever Championship game in 2012. During that season, the Storm were continuously put down and insulted by other coaches, parents and players within other Niagara football organizations on social media. They wanted everyone to know that the best talent was with the Spears football club and not with the Storm. This of course turned out to be very untrue. How else do you explain the strong desire to recruit Storm players onto the Spears?

Unless of course, it was just a vindictive move designed to see the Storm organization fail as a whole? But why, if any team or coach truly put the needs of the players in this Region above their own, would they want the kids who consciously make the choice to play for another team (options are good, monopolies are not) to fail? Why would they want Storm players to feel like their own self-worth is nothing simply because they play on another team? Is it the jilted girlfriend syndrome? Personally, I think this Region has an overflowing abundance of talent, and I would love nothing more than if all travel rep football teams could dominate each of their respective leagues instead of attempting to stockpile talent, just to sit them on the bench. The success of everyone translates into the success of Niagara, regardless of what team they play for.

Then came this announcement, which was released on February 13, 2013:

“The Niagara Spears, Niagara Generals and the Niagara Regional Minor Football Association have partnered together to join the Ontario Minor Football League (OMFL). This is an exciting development for football in the Niagara Region and will only enhance its development and success. This partnership will now unify the Niagara Region under one umbrella, making the Spears/NRMFA/Generals’ partnership an elite group for personal and player development at all levels.”

United under one umbrella? An elite group?

I guess I’m missing something, because I see absolutely no mention whatsoever of the Niagara Storm, which is weird, especially after Storm President, Frank Trivieri, made this very public announcement during an interview, which was conducted three months prior on November 19, 2012:

“What I’d like to see, is for the three parties in the Peninsula, to sit at the same table at some point, and really work away to establish a combined effort towards the development of football in the Niagara Peninsula, which will improve football whole-heartedly across the Peninsula, and will open up opportunities for football programs and for kids who plan to make a career out of it, or at the very least, go to University with it.”

It should be noted that this announcement by Mr. Trivieri went without any recognition or acknowledgment by any of the other football organizations in the Niagara Region, and the Storm were never once contacted by the Generals, the NRMFA or the Spears about joining into this new coalition that is now known simply as “Football Niagara.” Also, the Storm were members of the OMFL last year before applying and being accepted into the much larger and professionally run OFC league this year, so I personally find it a bit strange that when the Storm played in the OMFL, they were “garbage,” but now that Football Niagara is involved in what is definitely a shrinking league, they are now offering an opportunity that is somehow better for our kids?

So now I ask you…does this sound unified to you? Does it even make sense?

Basically, it’s just going to be more of the same, and from my perspective, there’s absolutely nothing unified about it. It’s just more anti-Storm behaviour.

And with that, my resolve has now been strengthened. At the end of last season, I announced at the halftime of the Championship game that I would be hanging up my cleats (I literally did that in my office by the way) and would no longer be coaching – not for the Storm, not for anybody. With my son no longer being able to play, it just didn’t feel right. I love coaching and I love encouraging my players, and I love knowing that I am somehow making a positive difference in their lives. Like I said earlier, I truly believe that enthusiasm is contagious and I really want what’s best for all of the players in the entire Niagara Region. But more than that, I want what’s best for my son. He didn’t play because I coached. I coached because he played. And that’s the bottom line and it still rings true.

With so much going on in the off-season with the Storm, and with the obvious efforts to make the Storm players and its coaching staff feel inadequate or excluded, I have now decided to delay my retirement by one year, knowing full-well that my son will understand that this has become about a lot more than just me coaching. I have come to love and respect my Storm family as being an amazing group of truly great individuals, and ones that I’m not willing to abandon at such an important juncture in the life of this young organization. We’ve worked too hard to simply give up just because there are those who would love nothing more than to see us fail. We’re not going to disappear off the radar – that’s just not going to happen.

So anyway folks, this will definitely be my last season coaching. EVER. And if I have to go down swinging in order to protect my players (or any players for that matter) from on-line bullying and from the misguided agendas of those who have a win-at-all-cost, we’re-better-than-you-for-absolutely-no-reason attitude, then that’s exactly what I’m going to do. Our children are not expendable, and like I’ve said many times before and I’ll keep on saying…

They deserve better.

And I’m sorry if I have offended you by truly believing that.

@coachjamesryan

James Ryan
James Ryan

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1 Comment

  1. James

    Comment from CFC: “Loved this article, so many similarities to what is currently happening in our community in Southern Alberta. You have stated our case eloquently, Those who have the win-at-all-cost attitude do not care about the youth, their sole focus is on the win. We are fighting for the youth in our community who just want to play with their friends, win or lose they don’t care, most of these kids will not continue to play football after high school so why not let them have fun while they can. Keep posting so we can hear how the next season goes, good luck in your fight!”

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