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Tom Rysinski: NIAA’s new sportsmanship rules pass first test

Fights breaking out at football games became an issue when two games during the 2018 season and one during the 2017 season in Southern Nevada were ruled double forfeits because of bench-clearing brawls. In one, police had to use pepper spray to break up the fight.

At the time, the rules were clear. Each team forfeited the game, and each was forced to forfeit its next game as well. In the case of Basic, the Wolves had to forfeit two games because they were a repeat offender, involved in one game-ending fight each season.

But the problem went way beyond football. According to the NIAA, there were 309 ejections in high school sporting events in Nevada during the 2018-19 school year, an increase of 34 over the previous year. Of those, 252 were players and 57 were coaches.

Football led the way with 85 ejections, with 75 for boys soccer and 33 for baseball. In boys basketball, 51 players, six coaches and five fans were tossed from games.

Only one 4A school, Eldorado in Las Vegas, did not have any ejections during the year. At the 3A level, Pahrump Valley was joined by Churchill County, Lowry and Somerset-Losee in being free of ejections. (The Trojans will not be on that list for this season after the highly suspect ejections of Andrew Avena and Jacob Lopez along with two Cheyenne players during their football game two weeks ago.) But the numbers spoke for themselves.

The Nevada Interscholastic Activities Association responded. The NIAA Board of Control approved recommendations from the Sportsmanship Committee over the summer that laid out expectations for coaches, athletes, officials, spectators and administrators and procedures for what would happen when those expectations were not met.

Not surprisingly, it didn’t take long for the new procedures to get taken for a test drive. Desert Oasis and Durango played Friday night in Las Vegas, and an altercation broke out after a Desert Oasis player “took exception to how he was tackled on a kickoff return near the Durango sideline,” according to Jason Orts of the Las Vegas Review-Journal. Punches were thrown, there was pushing and shoving, and some players left the bench to join the melee.

That last part is important, because what had been a relatively mild altercation — which, it was generally agreed, was handled well by coaches who prevented it from escalating — fell under the category of “bench-clearing brawl” and thus subject to automatic forfeiture. But, after reviewing film and interviewing those involved, the NIAA did not require either team to forfeit its next game, although individual players were to be suspended for those contests.

I go back and forth when it comes to “tough on crime” silliness. In the real world, most of the time it’s a lot of bluster, with people — generally running for office — trying to scare folks who don’t bother to read much and don’t know crime in this country peaked in the early 1990s and has been, with some statistical burps, dropping ever since.

But when you’re dealing with students and not adult criminals, and the “crime” is about breaking rules rather than laws, a one-size-fits-all approach is even less likely to be fair or reasonable. Or work, for that matter.

So what the NIAA did in this situation is outstanding, letting the facts of the case dictate the punishment rather than blindly handing down an edict that would make the “adults” feel good because they took a tough stand against miscreants. It also helps that the guidelines adopted by the NIAA made both the expectations and the punishments clear to all before a ball is snapped, a shot is taken or a point is recorded.

“They have asked the schools to talk about the sportsmanship initiative at the parent meetings before the season starts,” said Jason Odegard, athletic administrator at Pahrump Valley High School. “We addressed it in our fall meeting, and all coaches talked about it at their individual meetings. In addition, we make announcements during games where we have an announcer about sportsmanship expectations. We are working on a couple of other things to promote sportsmanship as well.”

In addition to those meetings, there is a sportsmanship pledge made when a student goes to the Register My Athlete website. If somebody ignores all that and gets ejected anyway, he or she must complete a sportsmanship course before returning to competition.

OK, that last part actually made me laugh, bringing back the memory of every pothead in middle school joining in when some bozo at a school assembly urged everyone to chant, “Just say NO!” You read it, sign it and it might or might not mean anything to you.

But the point is the rules are made clear. And the NIAA placed everything about the new procedures on its website for all to see. Complete transparency.

Now, are they perfect? Hmmmm. Consider that the section for officials requires them to “demonstrate respect for the contest” … through “appropriate rules knowledge, neutral application and enforcement.” Maybe that’s coming next year.

And the section for fans makes no mention of not making asinine comments toward officials, showing everyone within earshot they know nothing about the rules in which they claim expertise. (That’s a separate column. A long one.)

The NIAA deserves some credit, if not for the standard boiler-plate talk of sportsmanship, then for taking a hard look not just at how to promote it but what to do when things go awry.

Now I would like to see much harsher penalties for anyone who leaves a bench during an altercation, in every sport. Is there anything more idiotic than watching relievers run in from the bullpen when a fight breaks out in a baseball game? The New York Knicks once played an NBA playoff game with nine players because of suspensions for leaving the bench in the previous game. No reason you can’t bring that to high school sports.

And if coaches do not move to de-escalate the situation the way the coaches did Friday night, greater penalties should be leveled. And it’s important to note the NIAA policies do call for escalating penalties for serial violators.

But the NIAA did the right thing here. It singled out players whose participation in the altercation was greater than others while not punishing the entire team beyond the forfeit of the game in which it occurred.

That would not have been the case last year, and it’s a move in the right direction.

Contact Sports Editor Tom Rysinski at trysinski@pvtimes.com On Twitter:@PVTimesSports

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