At Missoula Hellgate High School, athletes are working on more than just their game. A group of them are also part of a program to promote better sportsmanship in their school.
The program, called Knight Life, started last year when a group of students got together to work on improving the behavior and attitude of athletes and fans after the school had received letters and emails complaining about how some Hellgate students were behaving at sporting events. The group is comprised entirely of student-athletes, and is organized by Lynn Farmer, Hellgate’s assistant principal and activities director.
Farmer said she saw stories of fans getting out of hand across the state, not just in Missoula, and wanted to do something to change the attitude.
“Our school is really about respect and responsibility, and I really felt that we could do more here at Hellgate,” she said.
Last year, the students who started Knight Life attended an Aim Higher workshop, put on annually by the Montana High School Association. The Aim Higher program works to promote good citizenship and leadership, as well as prevention of the use and abuse of tobacco, alcohol and other drugs.
“The group that went last year really wanted to do something more, to come back to Hellgate and do something that made a difference,” Farmer said. “This is really their group, they do the work. I just help to facilitate it.”
In addition to attending leadership seminars and working to be good role models at their school, the student group has created a series of posters with pictures of the student-athletes and quotes from them about what they think sportsmanship means, which have been hung around the school.
Two of the student-athletes in the group are senior McKenna Gagner and junior Caitlyn Farmer, Lynn’s daughter. Gagner plays softball and Caitlyn participates in basketball, cross country and track.
“I think sometimes, especially at the big games, things would get out of control a bit,” Caitlyn Farmer said. “Especially at football and crosstown games.”
Gagner said that in the past, fans had used inappropriate language or chants, and would single out specific members of the opposing team to taunt and put down.
“There was a basketball game where the whole student section got kicked out,” Caitlyn Farmer said.
Every year, Knight Life chooses a new theme to base that year’s efforts and activities around. During its inaugural campaign last year the theme was sportsmanship, this year it is leadership.
In addition to attending conventions like Aim Higher, Knight Life also sends members to other seminars, including a recent one put on by the Missoula Sunrise Rotary that focused on ethics and good decision-making.
Up until now, the main focus of Knight Life has been improving sportsmanship and leadership at the high school level, but the group is also planning to make visits in the spring to Hellgate Elementary School to promote the same ideals.
Lynn Farmer said she has seen marked improvement since the start of Knight Life. A Helena coach and teacher, Reid Christensen, recently sent an email saying how impressed he and other parents were with the postgame attitude of the Hellgate basketball team after a recent game against Helena Capital High School.
“They showed real class when they were hurting and that shows what kind of character you are teaching them,” he said.
In October, Hellgate received an award from the MHSA for good sporting behavior and having an ejection-free year. In recent months, Lynn Farmer said other schools have reached out about starting a similar program.
“Billings, in particular, said they really liked the posters around the school, and wanted to talk a bit about how things are organized,” Lynn Farmer said.
Right now there are 14 student-athletes taking part in Knight Life, but that number will only grow in the future, she said. Since the group started, there has been interest from non-student-athletes at Hellgate wanting to know how they can be involved. Farmer said the group is currently looking into how best to directly involve the broader student body.
“It’s not just about sporting events, it’s throughout the whole day. It’s about being a leader,” she said. “We want kids to have fun, we want fans to have fun and have everybody enjoy the games.”