When MU law professor Douglas Abrams attended USA Hockey’s Annual Congress in June, he wasn’t there as a legal expert. He was in Colorado Springs, Colo., to accept the national governing body’s Excellence in Safety Award for his outstanding contributions to making hockey a safer game — but not in a physical sense.
Recipients of the Safety Award typically have been nationally known physicians involved in medical research and injury prevention. Past recipients included Mayo Clinic sports medicine specialists. Abrams is the first to receive the award for what he calls “emotional safety.”
The audience of 300 was surprised by his speech, Abrams said. People understand physical safety, but nobody had ever talked about emotional safety at the awards dinner.
Abrams often gives speeches and writes law journal articles, newspaper editorials and blog columns about youth hockey and the role of sports in America. This month, he spoke about youth sports concussions at Santa Clara University’s Institute of Sports Law and Ethics in Santa Clara, Calif.
His columns appear regularly on two leading youth sports websites. “I write about somebody in the news — a player, coach, parent, or administrator — whose values set an example,” he said about his monthly columns on Momsteam.com. His weekly columns on Askcoachwolff.com discuss how sports can build character, respect, teamwork and other positive attributes in young people.
Abrams has been involved in hockey since childhood. He played in high school and at Wesleyan University, and started coaching youth league teams when he was a high school senior in New York in the late 1960s. He has coached hockey for 42 years.
In his acceptance speech at the hockey gala, Abrams spoke of the responsibility of coaches and parents to assure “fair and equal opportunity” to every player. He said that treating players impartially “means more than simply registering every interested child. [It] also means that coaches should ‘leave no child behind’ during the season.”
Treating children in this manner creates emotional safety within them, he said.
“Your players will always remember the good times in hockey, but they will never forget the bad times” if they are cut from the team or forced to warm the bench, Abrams said. He urged coaches to remain committed to emotional safety by asking themselves this question during the season: “How well do I treat my least-talented player?”
Besides promoting emotional safety in his speeches and writings, Abrams is one of 70 national sports experts working on a report for The Aspen Institute, an educational and policy studies organization in Washington, D.C.
The institute’s Sports and Society Program is working on Project Play, a two-year study to rethink what youth sports should be 15 years from now. “Our report will offer new approaches to health, safety and bringing sports to chronically underserved communities,” he said, “because this is the kids’ time — all the kids.”
— JeongAn Choi