On Sunday, Sept. 24, Miss Porter’s School hosted a summit conference with student-athletes from all the Founders League Schools, aiming to eliminate the unsportsmanlike behavior of all spectators at sporting events.
The Founders League comprises the top 11 northeast athletic preparatory high schools which has been standing since 1984 and is nationally respected as an academic and athletic powerhouse, consistently producing top student-athletes for nearly four decades.
Kingswood Oxford’s Athletic Director Josh Balabuch worked with Miss Porter’s Athletic Director Avi Dubnov for two years to create a conference where students from all 11 schools could meet and talk about how to improve their spectator environment.
The point person of the Founders League Athletic Director rotates annually, meaning every year there is one school in charge of the Founders League who comes up with a mission to improve the league for all schools. In this way, the school in charge of the Founders League is responsible for contributing to the league’s future.
In addition to formulating a mission statement on the Founders League website, KO made it their mission last year to collaborate with Miss Porters (who is in charge of the Founders League this year) to hold a summit addressing the decline in sportsmanship in past years.
Mr. Balabuch was very dedicated to and involved in the creation of the summit. “The summit was a leadership opportunity,” Mr. Balabuch said. “Specifically, we want to make sure we’re talking about sportsmanship and leadership with our student-athletes at the 11 different Founders League schools.”
Ten students got the email the Monday before the event that they had been selected to represent KO as future leaders academically and athletically by their coaches. The group traveled to Miss Porter’s School for four hours to discuss the Founders League’s core values and principles, what that means to them, and how they have been inspired by them.
The primary objective of the summit was to try to eliminate hateful comments, or “chirps” from the student and fan sections at all of their schools, and all 11 schools also gave their definition of what a “student-athlete” is.
The conference ran from 10:30 a.m. to 1:00 p.m. in Miss Porter’s squash and swim buildings, with each school speaking on what it means to be a student-athlete at their schools. This was shortly followed by group work with students from all other schools going over mini scenarios – a series of “What would you do?” questions directed by one of Quinnipiac University’s recent sports psychology graduates (who also attended Miss Porter’s). Students could share with the rest of their group and later present their group ideas to the rest of the students.
After a quick lunch break, the students broke off again to interpret the Founders League principles and then shared with the other 110 attending students. The summit concluded with closing remarks by Mr. Dubnov and ended around 1:00 p.m.
The summit was conceptualized after seeing an uptick in unsportsmanlike behavior, particularly in the post-COVID world. “We know in schools that COVID affects our young kids, and it’s delayed some athletics,” Mr. Balabuch said. “It’s caused a lot of different emotional or mental things to pop up.”
The impacts of COVID among dedicated students and fans were also a reason why KO was pushing for this summit to take place now, not years before or after.
Student-athletes were nominated by the 27 varsity coaches, and the selections were passed on to Mr. Balabuch and the athletics department. “The athletic department seconded the ones that we felt were strong ones as well,” Mr. Balabuch said. “So we put all the names on a list, and then we sussed it out. We clearly have more than 10 future leaders in our school, but it was tough to narrow down. We wanted to make sure we had some diversity in the male and female numbers.”
Ideally, the athletics department hoped to send a majority of underclassmen so that they could hopefully return for the 2024-2025 Founders League Summit.
The handful of students selected from KO were eager to represent their school that Sunday morning. Sophomore Kate Dempsey-Weiner was among the 10 selected students and looked forward to going, as she has had a few standoffs with negative comments from opposing fan sections since finding a home with the KO field hockey team last year.
“It was an away game,” Kate recalled. “During that period you were seeing chirps, bad comments, borderline bullying at that point.” Despite this, Kate said that she has always had a natural, neutral instinct to combat any and all negativity that may be thrown her way.
“[My] first reaction is to not engage, just to ignore it,” Kate said. “[I] reacted to when they were mocking me — I put my hands up and questioned them. I questioned the kid on the sideline who was doing it. It was whatever the rest of the game, and then I told my coaches.” These kinds of interactions where spectators are spilling into active games are exactly the reason the Founders League summit was unanimously agreed upon to take place.
Like the many other KO student-athletes at the summit, Kate felt great pride in being selected to represent the KO field hockey team. “ I was pretty excited,” Kate said. “They’re picking one person from a sport, so it’s nice to be able to represent KO field hockey but I was also excited because I think getting to share your side of how you interpret sports is important and to be a representative for KO is something really special.”
The pride in representing Kate’s KO sport was shared by fellow sophomore Samaria Gonzalez who consistently started on the girls varsity basketball team last year but had a different approach to how she handles hecklers in the stands.
“I’m locked in for the game — I don’t care what people say, honestly,” Samaria said. “I was taught that you don’t give it back. You just embrace the hate and use it to your advantage. I like to use it sometimes in my sport.”
When she got the email about the summit conference at Miss Porter’s, Samaria was curious to see what it was about and enjoyed the opportunity to voice her own opinions on sportsmanship at the summit.
Despite walking into the summit with a clear, open mind about what others had to say, Samaria had the bus ride back to school to reflect upon what the summit meant to her. “What the summit showed me was the idea of how to improve our community within sports, and how we can build a better environment for everyone,” she said. “Especially in female sports, it’s really important to be together and make a stand in the sports community.” She enjoyed hearing about what the sports psychologist had to offer about sportsmanship and directing the group discussions.
The Founders League plans to hold the summit annually, with plans for Taft to host next year.