“Palo Alto” the upcoming film: Should the Coach Athlete Relationship be glorified?

Written by: Katherine Starr

The upcoming film “Palo Alto” centers around a 14 year old high school girl soccer athlete, played by Emma Roberts (actual age 22), who gets romantically involved with her high school soccer coach, played by James Franco.  (Movie Trailer click here )

The trailer for this movie begins with scenes depicting the dynamics between Emma Roberts and her teammates, who are openly discussing the obvious attraction that is going on between Emma Roberts (Athlete) and James Franco (Coach).  We see Emma Roberts displaying her shyness and obvious attraction for her coach as she is teased by her teammates.

 The next vignette of the trailer shows a series of boys, the age of the girls, acting out of control and Robert’s frustration with their immaturity when all she wants is a loving mature boyfriend.  This sets  the stage for James Franco to make sexual advances toward Emma Roberts,  while Emma is showing open displays of frustration with boys her own age. Roberts is left vulnerable to be sexually molested by her coach as she sits in her locker alone at school as the coach approaches her. The Coach enters with the narration overlay “I’m older and I know that there aren’t a lot of good things around”. The  coach molests the 14 year old high school soccer player.


 Then we see Emma Roberts playing soccer on the field as the other girls discuss her relationship with the coach from the bench. This scene comes across implying that Emma Roberts was only out there because she was having a sexual relationship with her coach. This is a classic set up and justification to blame the victim, making it falsely okay to have no empathy for the athlete who struggles when the coach athlete sexual relationship ends.  The athlete is left isolated and alone with no one to turn to for sympathy, compassion and understanding. Instead, the other athletes blame her for all the pain and suffering experienced as a result.

 While the movie was reviewed as James Franco’s character being a sleazy coach, and in some cases a sexual predator, it still also presents the classic justification for the criminal acts of the coach. Films like “Palo Alto” send the topic “coach athlete abuse” backwards. The conclusion in this type of portrayal of darkness is best presented in such a way illustrate the catastrophic effects that this type of relationship has on an individual as well as to underscore a zero tolerance policy for coach athlete relationships. The portrayal of the coach athlete relationship in this film doesn’t have a strong enough commitment to faithfully presenting the degree of pain and suffering that such a relationship can bring to an athlete.

 The film premise in the scene with the teammates on the bench talking about the relationship with the coach and Emma Roberts, leads the audience to believe that being in a relationship can gain more playing time.  This type of message is harmful to sports and young girls influenced by the clear abuse of power dynamic that is being played out. 

 We need more discussion around the emotional relationships that transpires between the athlete and the coach.  As athletes, we depend on that relationship to develop our mind, body and soul. There is an inherent depth to this relationship and an important trust that drives us to next level. If any of those lines are crossed they are crossed for the rest of our lives. Recovery is very difficult and frequently leads to long-term depression or even suicide. The effects are devastating.

 If films continue to glorify the coach athlete relationship uncritically, we continue to risk a lifetime of pain and suffering. It may seem at the time, the transgression is ‘not that bad’.  The teammates often blame their teammate for being involved with the coach and have a perception that this was wanted attention and was a good thing for the athlete. When the Athlete tries to remove themselves from the situation they are chastised again for upsetting the team dynamics and causing further harm to the rest of the teammates.  This is flat out harmful and wrong. We need to stop supporting such behavior and the cycle of abuse that resides amongst athletes and teammates.

 Shame on you James Franco; stop glorifying this type of coach athlete relationship. Socially, we need to stop justifying it and seeing how harmful it truly is. We need to start educating our athletes about the inherent dangers of such inappropriate relationships and implementing better policies and procedures for sports programs. 


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