When a female player wants a private chat, Seton Keough basketball coach Jim Stromberg leaves his office door open -- though the walls are made of glass.
If a Dulaney High runner wants a victory hug, cross country coach Bob Dean offers her a handshake instead.
Should one of his basketball players need a ride after practice, Annapolis High coach Dave Griffith offers to call her folks. "There's no way today that I'd take a player home," says Griffith, a retired policeman.
Male high school coaches in the Baltimore area say they now take extra precautions to stay safely in bounds when working with female athletes, in light of three recent sexual misconduct cases that have put them all under scrutiny.
Last week, police charged Andre Kelley, a Montgomery County track coach, with two counts of custodial child abuse, bringing to 13 the number of sex offense charges against him. Kelley, of Albert Einstein High in Wheaton, was arrested last month for having sexual contact with four female students under his supervision, at least one of them a member of the track squad that Kelley coached.
Two similar cases have occurred in the Baltimore area: Last August, Stuart Tarleton pleaded guilty to fondling and kissing a 15-year-old female athlete at Carver Center for the Arts and Technology in Towson, where he was coach and athletic director; and in 1993, Ron Price was convicted of having sex with students -- including the 15-year-old second baseman on his softball team -- at Northeast High in Pasadena.
Coaching female athletes today is like walking a tightrope, said Dave Greenberg, basketball coach at Centennial High. "Unfortunately, because of several major foul-ups [by male coaches], the rest of us feel like we're on a cat wire," he said.
The tightrope is a crowded one: Almost half the nearly 900 varsity girls teams in the Baltimore area -- 49 percent -- were coached this year by men, a Sun survey of 96 area schools has found. Those men know they're being observed on the sidelines.
Four years ago, Bob Manz was summoned to the principal's office at Northeast. A parent had seen Manz, then the girls lacrosse coach, place his hand on a player's shoulder during a game. Manz explained that he was consoling the girl, who had made a mistake on the field.
"The accusation floored me," said Manz. "That's when I started using handshakes instead of hugs."
Coaches say they are more vigilant about their contact with female athletes. Still, they worry: Would a player angry at being benched retaliate with false accusations?
"If a kid is upset about a decision I made, I may think, 'What if she really wants to nail me?' " said Greenberg, a 19-year coach and former president of the Maryland Women's Basketball Coaches Association. "If a kid says something happened, what defense do I have?
"I can't imagine anyone being that vindictive, but the potential is there for somebody to do something ugly -- and as coaches, we're very vulnerable."
Most men share the same ground rules:
Overnight road trips are out -- too dicey, they say. When the prestigious Penn Relays beckon, Perry Hall High track coach Jerry Martin gathers his charges that same day for the trip to Philadelphia. "We're not as fresh as if we'd spent the night there," Martin conceded. "But you don't take chances after what's happened lately."
Ferrying players home is done at your own risk. "One young lady on my team has to travel through a very undesirable neighborhood," said Jack Nehsmann, softball coach at Southern High of Baltimore. "If she asks me, I'll take her home -- but you leave yourself open to the Ron Price syndrome."
Banter with female athletes is more deliberate, guarded. "I'm more careful about how I joke with players," Greenberg said. "If the girls dress nicely on game day, I'll still say, 'You look great,' or 'You look precious.' But then I think, 'Is something wrong with that?' "
Instructional touching is OK, but a victory embrace generally is not.
"Girls still run up to give me hugs, their way of saying the work paid off," said Dulaney's Dean, The Sun's 1996 cross country coach of the year. "I try to stop them in a subtle way, so as not to hurt their feelings. I'll remove their arms gently, or I'll back off a bit. Or I'll put out my hand for them to shake.
"You want to show how deeply you appreciate their efforts, but you just don't hug anymore, because of what's been in the papers. It's sad."
On the contrary, it's prudent for men to keep their distance, experts say: The girls' welfare is tantamount, even if coaches find the detachment awkward. "If a coach is professional, he knows where to draw the line. This is not rocket science," said Wendy Hilliard, president of the Women's Sports Foundation.
What constitutes appropriate contact? The guidelines are only clear for men coaching boys and women coaching girls.
"When guys win a state wrestling championship, they jump into my arms at breakneck speed -- and there's nothing wrong with that," said Annapolis High coach Dave Gehrdes.
"We hug after every goal, everybody hugs everybody else -- that's what females do," said Lil Shelton, field hockey coach at Severna Park High. "It's an expression of the moment that should go no further than that."
Female athletes say they feel OK about physical contact with male coaches -- within reason.
"I won't say there haven't been times when I've thought about it [improprieties]," said Gina Dinisio, a three-sport standout who graduated from Centennial last year. "If he's only been your coach for a few days and he gives you a hug, you're cautious. But if you've built up a trust together, you don't even think about it."
"Getting a hug for scoring a game-winning goal is no big deal, unless he grabs you in places he's not supposed to touch," said Jessa Phoebus, 18, an alumnus of Perry Hall. "It depersonalizes the relationship if a coach sticks out his hand and says, 'Good work.' It makes you think you didn't do a good enough job."
Cases go unreported
"Everyone has a different comfort level," said Dani Vissers, a 1995 graduate of Mount Hebron High. "It really depends on how long you've known a coach. If you're a freshman and he puts his arm on your shoulder, you think, 'Who is this guy?' "
Though evidence suggests incidents of sexual misconduct between high school coaches and their athletes are rare -- neither state nor federal authorities keep such records -- experts believe other cases may go unreported. "There is inappropriate behavior going on out there, and it happens more than we're told," said Dr. Maggie Faulkner, sports psychologist at Towson State. "Why aren't we told? Kids are afraid, embarrassed."
Other incidents may be settled quietly within the system, school officials say. "It's a taboo thing," said Bob Maxey, athletic director at Hammond High. "Administrators don't like to report that 'my staff had a sexual pervert on it.' "
"I'm sure there are things happening in schools that are criminal that never get reported," said John P. Cox, head of the sex offense and child abuse unit in the Baltimore County state's attorney's office. "A lot of times, the student just doesn't tell anybody."
Cox, who prosecuted the Tarleton case, acknowledged that such episodes have affected the vast number of well-meaning coaches.
"I'd say 99.9 percent of coaches are upstanding people doing a lot of good for these kids," he said. "There are good, decent coaches out there who are avoiding what may be appropriate conduct because they feel they could be wrongfully accused of inappropriate conduct."
At 24, Russ Harless looks more like the senior class president than the girls soccer coach at Carver Center for the Arts and Technology. Tarleton was his boss; the victim was a player on Harless' soccer team.
After Tarleton's arrest, Harless sought out a player's parent and asked: "Do you think, in any way, that my actions would lead someone to believe I was touching too much, or spending too much time with one girl?"
The answer was no. Relieved, Harless continued to follow his instincts.
"If a girl is upset or crying, on or off the field, I'll put my arm around her and talk to her -- but it's always in an open area," he said.
A hands-off policy is safer, experts say.
"Hug players with your voice, show compassion with your face -- but don't touch," Faulkner said. "This could be some diabolical kid who'd accuse you of something -- and you're dead in the water."
Male coaches are retreating from female athletes at a time when reassurance is needed, says Rick Carpenter, sports psychologist and athletic director at Western Maryland College.
"Things are a little disheveled out there in society right now," said Carpenter. "As young people look for adults to respect and admire in today's unstable world, the role of coach is more important than ever."
The bond between coach and athlete "can be a deep, deep thing -- one of the most positive relationships in life," said Carole Oglesby, sports psychology consultant at Temple University. "But it bothers me that male coaches sometimes respond in a way that's almost punishing -- like, if this is what's going to happen, then I'm not even going to touch you."
Players and coaches say the new ground rules put distance between them.
"When you make a great play, rush off the field and the coach says, 'Good job, I'm proud of you,' it's not the same as if he'd put his hand on your shoulder and said the same thing," said Anna Otto, a multi-sport athlete who graduated from Northeast last year. "I saw it happen to a lot of girls, and they were a little crushed -- they'd just made a goal and got a handshake for it?"
Male coaches feel inhibited to respond, says Dave Griffith, the Annapolis coach.
"At the same time you're creating a bond with these players, you're building this wall around yourself," he said. "No wonder girls ask, 'What's wrong with you?' and 'Why don't you show more emotion?'
"The truth is, the only time it's really safe to touch a player is if she's your daughter."
At Liberty High, soccer coach Sam DeLaurence does just that: His daughter Haley is on the squad. "I've hugged others, too, after a big win," said DeLaurence, whose team won a state title last fall. "But I'm very, very cautious there."
Crushes on coaches
Flirtatious advances by female athletes are rare today, but not unheard of, male coaches say.
"Do girls develop crushes on coaches? Yeah, that's happened," said Derek Maki, 42, softball coach at Patterson High. "Some become attached to you as a role model. You can tell it [an infatuation] from the actions of the player involved -- other girls will tease her or talk among themselves or use certain body language."
When he senses the climate, Maki said, he explains to the athlete "the line drawn between player and coach." Sometimes, he says it twice. "It's sort of difficult for them to understand when you're someone who's there for them every day," he said.
Three years ago, at Arundel High, a male coach approached athletic director Bernie Walter in a quandary.
"The coach said one of his female players was calling him by his first name," said Walter. "Apparently, there had been a little touching, too." The coach explained that he had expressed his concerns to the athlete, to no avail."
Walter called the girl into his office and set her straight.
"It was a very simple early development of a teen-age crush," he said. "We nipped it in the bud before anything could happen."
Pub Date: 6/11/97