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Bonus Editorial
Project Interlock

Idaho High Schools Look to the Stands

Like so many other high school groups across the country, the Southern Idaho Conference (SIC) has been working to deter poor sportsmanship in its interscholastic athletic programs. Seven years ago, it implemented Project Interlock, which continues to thrive, expand, and be replicated by others with each passing year.

What makes this project unique is that it doesn't target students in the uniforms but rather takes aim at those students sitting in the stands. The idea is that good sportsmanship needs to be established by student leaders cheering from the bleachers as much as by students on the field. Another unique aspect of the program is that it unites high school students from the conference's 14 schools for a half-day of "Sportsmanship 101." The program challenges students to discuss, and offer solutions to, current sportsmanship issues.

The theory goes like this: If you can get students to acknowledge and understand the problems, and invite them to provide possible solutions, their own behavior will improve. In turn, they will influence others within their individual social circles to adopt more sportsmanlike behaviors. "Kids are kids," says Rex Johnson, Principal of Centennial High School in Boise and a founder of Project Interlock, "and you can't tell them, By golly, you're going to do this, this, and this,' because they'll insist, No, we're not!' So instead we ask them to help us."

The idea of lending a helping hand is how the project got its name. "That's the sign of the whole thing," Johnson says, "interlocking hands together to work together for a better understanding between schools in a sports arena."

Project Interlock actually began over a decade ago in the Boise School District. "At that time the district had five schools and there was some pretty heated competition going on," says Jack Acree, District Athletic Coordinator for the Boise School District and another project founder. "We never had any major problems, but in some of the state's other school districts, and in other states, there had been riots and fights. We didn't want that to happen [in our schools], so we took some preventative measures."

In Interlock's infancy, the schools began by hosting an informal lunch whenever a game between rivals was scheduled. Each school's administrators would select a handful of students at random and bring them together for a pizza meet-and-greet.

"It was just to get together and get to know each other," Johnson says, "to have a positive interaction between schools rather than that rivalry of shouting, fighting, and stuff. The thought was, 'Tonight at the game we'll see you, so let's try to be good sports between ourselves.'"

Project Interlock was implemented conference-wide when Johnson became president of the Southern Idaho Conference in 1992. "We felt like it was working so well with us that we should get the whole league involved, so we did," Acree explains.

Even now, in its evolved state, the project's format is simple but effective. Twice a year--once before fall sports and once before winter sports--each of the participating 14 schools appoint seven students as representatives to attend that season's half-day Interlock meeting. "What administrators look for are students who are active at the games--cheerleaders, student body officers, the rowdy ones, and some of the students who lead cheers," Acree says.

The meeting opens with the students listening to one or more speakers. "Interlock brings in someone from the Idaho High School Activities Association (IHSAA) to talk about the state sportsmanship program and the reasons for promoting good sportsmanship," says Acree. "Different people from the community, like business leaders, also come and explain how sportsmanship is important in working together and getting along, and how that carries over from school activities into life and business." "Once we brought in the assistant coach of the Boise State University basketball team," says Johnson. "We've had the CEO from the YMCA come and speak about sportsmanship, honesty, and character. And this year we had a pretty well-known official come and speak about what the official's role is."

Next, the students do an ice-breaker activity, are divided into groups, and then discuss topics of concern. Within each group, participants are given up to 15 questions to discuss. Each group also appoints a leader, who later shares the group's ideas with the rest of the assembly.

The purpose of the question period is two-fold. Initially, it engages students in discussions about the value and importance of good sportsmanship and the ways they can positively support their teams. But it also provides administrators with new ideas for policy.

Questions are designed to get the students to recognize areas within their playing environments that need work. "For example, we'll ask them, 'What would you do if fans around you started yelling F-You, F-You!'" says Johnson. "'What are you going to do as an Interlock member? Who should take care of that?'" Other typical questions include: How can host schools best control rowdy students? What signs should be allowed at a football game? How can we get our students more involved in school spirit? Although a principal, coach, or athletic director is present within each group of students, their role is more one of facilitator than contributor. "We don't want to talk to them too much," Johnson explains. "We want the students to talk and discuss among themselves."

Nonetheless, administrators have found that having coaches present at the meetings, even in a listening capacity, has been beneficial. "Some of the discussions often center around the attitude of the coach and the players, and how if they have a good attitude that will spill over into the crowd," says Acree. "And that has really helped--having coaches see how astute these kids are and that they really are looking to the coaches for leadership."

To help facilitate better sportsmanship among those not attending the Interlock meetings, participating students are charged with educating their peers. "During the group dialogue, ideas are thrown out as to how they can get their student bodies involved in acting more sportsmanlike," Acree says. "Then the students go back to their schools and it's their responsibility to figure out ways to disseminate the information that's been talked about at the Project Interlock meeting to the student body in general."

Over the years, Interlock students have brainstormed many ideas that administrators have adopted as official policy. "For example," says Acree, "at one of the early sessions it was recommended that you have a sign in your gymnasium welcoming the opposing team. And that is a standard practice now."

Other ideas put into effect include providing visiting cheerleaders, athletes, and administrators with complimentary refreshments, posting welcome signs in locker rooms, and hosting occasional inter-school dances after games. Rules regulating behavior at games include no chants with curses in them, no painted faces or bodies, and no manufactured noisemakers such as air horns.

Although limitations are placed on the fans, enforcement of and abidance by the sportsmanship policy has resulted in a better competitive environment. "When we started this thing," says Johnson, "they had all kinds of yells they were doing. Vulgar yells. Swearwords. Everything. But they don't do that anymore, and I think the kids have a better appreciation for number one: Support your team and don't make fun of other people; and number two: Support the officials, because without them we don't have a game."

The students' respect for the rules has also afforded them new allowances. "We used to make the kids sit up on the top deck," Johnson adds, "and now they can come down on the floor. We have to monitor them a little bit because they're closer to the game, but the kids love it. The parents want the kids to sit down, but I tell them, 'No, the kids can stand. You go sit somewhere else.'"

According to Johnson, the program has worked well for the SIC. "The kids seem to like it," he says. "Only 14 kids out of 2100 students at Centennial are selected to go every year, so they know they're special. They get out of school, spend time with the administrators, and when they get to the meetings, they meet kids from other schools and they feel good about it."

As if being selected to attend the half-day meetings wasn't reward enough, Project Interlock provides students with another perk. "The kids are each given a free Interlock T-shirt," says Johnson, "and it gets them in free to every conference game they go to."

After almost a decade in existence, and with many sportsmanship policies in place for years now, one might wonder why the SIC continues to conduct Project Interlock. "You have to understand," says Bill Young, Executive Director of the IHSAA, "that this is a journey. It is not a destination. And you can't just stop, because every year you have new students and one person's definition of sportsmanship is completely different than someone else's."

"It's a continual education process," Johnson adds. "You get one group of students where you want them and they graduate. Then you've got to educate the next group."

"Sportsmanship is difficult to deal with," says Acree. "A lot of people don't pay much attention to it until they're facing a negative situation. We always felt like we needed to take an additional step--become proactive--and get involved with our students to see what we could achieve. I think Project Interlock's bottom line is that you treat other people how you'd like to be treated, regardless of whether it's in an athletic situation, a social situation, or a work situation. It's all about values, and that's what the students take away from it."

  • Start with the Fundamentals
    A listing of the six fundamentals of good sportsmanship

  • Discussion Questions
    A dozen questions to get the students talking

  • Feedback
    A sample evaluation form to review the program

  • Tips for Administrators
    How to get sportsmanship going at your school

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