Op-ed column: Overprotective rules stifle healthy rivalries in school sports
If you’re old enough to remember “Kill the Hill,” “Stomp the Swamp,” and “Red, Red Knock ’em Dead,” then you know that this area has a rich history of producing quality high school sports teams and intense school rivalries.
Mont Pleasant vs. Linton, Albany vs. Philip Schuyler, Mohonasen vs. Draper, Scotia vs. Burnt Hills — the list goes on. Nearly every school had an archrival, and when they met on the field or court the stands were full, spirits ran high, and often tempers flared.
The bonfire that lit the sky over Mont Pleasant on the eve of Election Day, and kids in scores of cars festooned with blue and white or red and white streamers that dotted Schenectady on game day was proof of lively and engaged student bodies that actually cared about something other than iPads, YouTube, and the next overhyped version of iPhone.
Cheers and jeers
Allow me to wax nostalgic a bit further here. As a kid, I remember watching a basketball game that featured two rivals from the old Diocesan League, played in a bandbox of a gym on Madison Avenue that Vincentian Institute called home. The distance between the end of the court and the first row of seats was about two feet on all four sides. The game was intense and the home crowd was a bit scary but a whole lot of fun to watch. When the call went against VI, we were treated to waves of organized cheers by the faithful that taunted, if not threatened the referees, such as “We got the rope, we got the tree, all we need is the referee.”
But the zebras of that era took it in stride and went about their jobs largely unaffected by the students’ rants. Such behavior would today gray the hair of most athletic directors, intimidate referees, and have Section II’s überbosses scurrying back to their desks with pens poised to write even more silly rules.
During the past four years, I’ve had the opportunity to watch more than 60 Big Ten high school basketballs games and about a dozen contests between schools from the Suburban and Colonial councils.
Changes for worse
Two initial observations:
• The kids who once flocked to see their schools play ball are largely missing, and the quality of officiating is at an all-time low.
• The pace of the games is faster (often much faster than just a few decades earlier). Two-person, aging officiating crews and a more physical game make for blown calls and the attendant cursing nearly inevitable. And, if I have seen anything over the past four years, it is poor officiating!
Charging calls are a thing of the past; blocking, yes — every time two players from opposite sides are within an arm’s length of each other; traveling, sure, all the way to Manhattan if you’d like and with your pivot foot twisting merrily in the wind; lane violations, what lane?; five seconds to in-bound the ball, no, take as long as you’d like, we’re in no hurry here.
But let one player simply clap his hands after a missed shot by an opponent and he’s slapped with a technical foul by thin-skinned refs who feel threatened by one or two catcalls from the stands.
This brings me to the oft-heralded New York State Public High School Athletic Association and its list of verboten behavior for players, coaches, spectators and the occasional unsuspecting vagrant who may wander into the gym. Booing? Heaven forfend! Taunting? Nein. Noise? Well, as not to rattle a participant or shake his confidence, there should be complete silence when he heads to the foul line for a turn at the charity stripe.
You can hear a pin drop. The result, apathetic student bodies that make for artificially respectful and largely boring fans.
For the uninitiated, the NYSPHSAA is the governing body of interscholastic sports in the state, and is divided into 11 sections. Section II calls the shots in the Capital Region.
This merry little group of fun-suckers dictates just about everything that happens in boys and girls sports in grades 7-12. And they have a zero tolerance for just about everything.
According to its rules, intended to cover all those with any interest in high school athletics, a “happy relationship” should be demonstrated between visitor and host, and all should “respect the integrity and judgment of sports officials.”
Their edict envisions civilized, quaint little spectators clapping ever so politely with a “hooray” for our team and a “nice try, ole chap” for opponents. This band of sports overlords would create robotic, non-responsive, phlegmatic players and docile fans.
While your great-grandmother may have been pleased to witness such fine behavior, the rest of us, not so much.
I am well acquainted with and, for the most part, endorse and applaud today’s anti-bullying initiatives. But do they have to be extended in full force, if not contorted illogically, to sporting arenas? Our fears are misplaced if we think that animated or even rude fans at high school sporting events are going to give rise to the country’s next set of school mass murderers.
Dial it down
I think our anxiety level can be dialed down from red to yellow. From all accounts, psychotic, deranged lunatics who open fire on school grounds are loners, social misfits who generally don’t attend many high school basketball or football games.
In generations past, kids (participants and spectators) were capable of a little bloodletting on the court or field and in the stands, but then leaving the animus behind at the end of the game and heading back home. I am pretty sure that today’s kids would do the same if only given the chance.
So let the kids play ball, and their classmates have some fun while blowing off a little steam in the stands.
Frank Ciervo lives in Niskayuna and is a regular contributor to the Sunday Opinion section.