By Karissa Niehoff
NFHS Executive Director
Sometimes in life things simply do not happen as planned. The unexpected is always right around the corner. When these situations occur, we must adapt to change and determine the best steps in moving forward.
Such was the case in selecting the subject for this week’s “Voice.” We were set on addressing the ugly spotlight on professional baseball with the recent sign-stealing incidents and that high school sports is not and must not be about “winning at any cost.”
This is certainly a worthy subject. High school sports is about competing fairly and doing things the right way. The wrong in the baseball scandal was not getting caught; it was players and managers believing that cheating was an acceptable means to winning. These are not the kind of heroes we want to follow.
And then came the events of Sunday morning in California. It was hard to fathom. Kobe Bryant and his 13-year-old daughter, Gianna, were no longer with us. Along with seven others on the helicopter that crashed that morning, Kobe and “Gigi” were on their way to what else – a basketball game.
As people from all over the world – both those who knew Kobe on a personal basis as well as casual fans – expressed their shock and sadness about this tragedy, there were consistent messages about the value of sports and family that were ever present.
While Kobe Bryant was one of the best basketball players ever to play the game, it was apparent that more so than all the all-star appearances and scoring titles and NBA championships, his impact came from the relationships formed through participating in sports – from Lower Merion High School in the Philadelphia suburb of Ardmore, Pennsylvania, to his 20 years with the Los Angeles Lakers.
And then it was about family as he supported his daughters, Natalia, who plays volleyball, and Gigi, a basketball player who was determined someday to play at the University of Connecticut, in their participation in sports. In an interview with PEOPLE Magazine in 2018, Bryant shared how he used his opportunity to coach his daughters in basketball as an opportunity to teach them valuable life lessons.
“A valuable life lesson that I can teach them is what it means to pursue excellence and the commitment level that comes with that,” Bryant said in the PEOPLE interview.
There are many lessons to be learned from this tragedy and the nine lives that were cut short. Our original plan of re-emphasizing that high school sports must not be about “winning at any cost” is certainly among those lessons. Success at the high school level has more to do with preparing students for their lives after high school than winning games or state championships.
Doing things the right way, playing the game the way it is supposed to be played, developing relationships and having fun along the way – that’s the message of high school sports.
As we listened to hundreds of people share their remembrances of Kobe Bryant the past few days, a few things were evident. Like all of us, he was not perfect; however, he showed us the power and influence of sports in our country. He played the game the right way, giving 100-percent effort every night. He regularly praised and supported others, always smiling. And he was passing on his love of sports to his daughters.
And the last lesson – be sure you tell those closest to you every day that you love them.
Dr. Karissa L. Niehoff is in her second year as executive director of the National Federation of State High School Associations (NFHS) in Indianapolis, Indiana. She is the first female to head the national leadership organization for high school athletics and performing arts activities and the sixth full-time executive director of the NFHS, which celebrated its 100th year of service during the 2018-19 school year. She previously was executive director of the Connecticut Association of Schools-Connecticut Interscholastic Athletic Conference for seven years.