Players, coaches and fans at sporting events are often reminded of how important it is to practice sportsmanship and courtesy, but in Howard County, schools officials are hammering home the point with banners that can be seen at every high school football field and gymnasium.
The words "Choose Civility" greet those who attend school sporting events as part of a Howard community initiative to ensure that cooler heads prevail even in the heat of competition. The initiative Choose Civility, founded in 2006, is led by the Howard County Library and aims to garner the county a reputation for tolerance and respect of others.
And while some might consider the oversize banners commonplace, many in Howard schools believe that students and adults alike will take them seriously.
"A lot of us are put in bad positions as teenagers in general, so it's about just making the right decisions on and off the field," said Wilde Lake senior quarterback Joe Kelly, 17, a few hours after an event at Wilde Lake to mark the inclusion of the banners at all 12 Howard County high schools.
Officials at the Columbia-based program Choose Civility say that it was inspired by the book "Choosing Civility: The 25 Rules of Considerate Conduct," by P.M. Forni, a Johns Hopkins University professor and director of the Romance languages and literatures department.
The sports banners come in advance of a Choose Civility symposium Oct. 6 at the Bain Center in Columbia that will explore the role of civility in democracy.
"This will be a reminder that civility is important on and off the field," said Christie Lassen, Howard County Library spokeswoman. "It's not only for the athletes, but it's also for the fans, spectators, parents. You come here and practice good sportsmanship. And as you leave, you continue to practice civility."
Lassen said that funding for the banners was provided by the Howard County Rotary Clubs and facilitated by former Wilde Lake coach and Rotary member Darrell Nevin.
Wilde Lake football coach Michael Harrison said that the initiative can serve as a lesson for youngsters, particularly those who play football, a sport known for emotional, aggressive play.
"It's an important part of the lessons we're trying to teach kids every day in the sport of football," Harrison said. "We don't normally use the word 'civility' on the football field. We use 'sportsmanship,' but it's really the same concept, being able to treat your opponent with respect, being able to treat the coaches and officials with respect."
Harrison said that he and his coaching staff preach the message each day to their players, instructing them to be role models for civility within the school.
"We're talking to kids about doing the right thing in the building, getting in the front of the classroom, getting your education, be decent to the teachers and classmates," he said.
"We actually are seeing where kids are making better decisions," Harrison added. "My principal [recently] pulled me aside and he said, 'For the first three weeks of school, we haven't had any issue with a football player in the administration.' The nature of football players is that sometimes they can get themselves in trouble, but we haven't had a situation like that."
Kelly said that because he plays the most visible position on the team, he is aware that teammates are taking cues from him, which makes embracing the civility message important.
"These are all good guys out here," he said. "For some [the message] goes in one ear and out of the other, but a lot of them hear it, and a lot of them catch it."