Empathy Lessons from Fifth-graders- UPDATED

You might think there’s no room for empathy in sports competitions. Sports, by their nature, are competitive. As former NFL Coach Herm Edwards once put it: “You play to win the game.” If you start worrying about someone else’s feelings, you might lose the edge you need for victory, right?

But as a group fifth-graders in New Jersey recently showed us, empathy is essential to the teamwork and loyalty we all need to succeed – in sports, in business, and in life.

These were just normal kids going about their normal lives at St. John the Apostle School in Clark, N.J., when they found themselves sucked into some cultural warfare. For several years, the school didn’t have enough interested girls to field a girls’ basketball team, so the two girls who wanted to play simply joined the boys’ squad. Then some anonymous adult pointed out that it was against the league’s rules.

The athletic director, who had turned a blind eye to the violation in the past, now had to tell the kids they had to forfeit all their previous wins and play their remaining schedule (two games plus the post-season) without the girls. A higher ranking official – the newly installed cardinal for the archdiocese – tried to overrule that decision, but changed his mind after hearing from their attorneys.

The kids, of course, found this entirely unjust. They’d been playing together for four years. So the boys on the team took a stand in support of their female teammates.

“We wanted to stick up for them so they could play,” one of them said.

When their next game came around, they all dressed out to play. The referees were told not to work the game if the girls played. The coach let the kids decide what to do, and the nine boys and two girls voted unanimously to play the game only if everyone could participate. So their opponent left with a forfeit victory, and the St. John’s co-ed team stayed around and played an intra-squad scrimmage.

All of this found its way into the online pages of a New Jersey newspaper, which then drew attention from Good Morning America. Three of the students went on the show to discuss what they did, why, and what they learned.

And what did they learn? In some form or another, all three said the same thing: “It taught us to stick together.”

As it turned out, the next guest on the show was Geno Auriemma, the head basketball coach of the University of Connecticut women’s basketball team. His team had a game that night and was playing for its 100th consecutive victory. But before he talked about his team’s historic run, he talked about the fifth-graders heroic actions.

“I don’t care what age you are, [when you’re] on the court or on the playing field, there’s no such thing as bias,” he said. “I hope the boys on this team grow up and when they’re adults they have the same empathy and same level of respect for the women they’ll be working with that they do for the girls on their team.”

I couldn’t agree more. Empathy is a powerful motivator because it takes us outside of ourselves and pushes us to serve the needs of others. That doesn’t mean we can’t or shouldn’t play to win the game. It just means that we go about the right way. In the end, the kids at St. John lost all of their games – except the one that matters most. tweet this

UPDATE, 2/15/17:

I’m happy to report that the Archdiocese of Newark has reversed its decision. A few days after this story made the national news, Cardinal Joseph W. Tobin announced that the girls were to be reinstated onto the team for the remainder of the season. The team will reschedule the two games it missed and can play together through the playoffs. “The Saint John’s JV Black team should not have been penalized for mistakes that adults responsible for following the league rules may have made,” the Cardinal said in a statement.

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