In the wake of the Ohio High School Athletic Association releasing the numbers for ejections across all varsity sports for the 2017-18 season, outgoing OHSAA commissioner Dr. Dan Ross expressed disappointment that, for the second year in a row, those numbers had spiked and included all-time highs in some sports.
Last week, The Suburbanite examined the issue from the OHSAA’s perspective and delved into what the organization is doing to address what it perceives as a point of concern. This week, we look at the story from the point of view of local schools and coaches who are on the ground in the battle to make sure that sportsmanship is a central part of the game.
Jackson football head coach Tim Budd is in the biggest division of arguably the most popular sport - at least in terms of attendance for games and media attention - in high school athletics in Ohio. The Polar Bears are a Division I school and have faced some of the state’s top teams in recent years, making two straight playoff appearances and snapping a league title drought last season.
One point of which Budd is proud is that during his time at Jackson, no players have been ejected from games. He too has seen the numbers - 350 players and coaches kicked out of games last season for various reasons - but hasn’t seen one specific cause that explains the rise in ejections.
"The first thing I asked myself was, it this a random uptick, so you wonder if there’s no deeper reason and if it’s random," Budd said. "Also, football is becoming more and more difficult to officiate with rules being put in place in the name of safety, so it’s going to continue to get tougher and tougher for officials."
Budd noted that the two noticeable ejection numbers are those for individual and mass fights in games and believes that as a contact sport, football can set the stage for such conflicts because players spend 48 minutes slamming into one another and trying to take each other to the ground.
Coventry boys basketball coach Mike DiFalco, entering his third season at the helm and having won 17-plus games each of his first two seasons, sees another part of the sporting environment as one that may create a more emotionally charged atmosphere.
"The only thing I would really point out is that we could use more emphasis on crowd control," DiFalco said. "You have 15, 16, 17-year-old kids who are not playing in the NBA and they’re there for the right reasons, and you have outsiders in the stands coming in with their comments throughout the course of the game. It’s difficult to block it out for the players, but fans come after players, coaches and officials and I think we should have zero tolerance for vulgarity and that sort of thing and that could solve some of the issues I’ve seen in the past."
DiFalco noted that the desire to win is "at an all-time high" for many coaches and athletes, for various reasons. It could be trying to earn recruiting attention and a college scholarship for a player, a coach trying to raise his or her own profile to keep a job or get a chance at a coaching position at the next level, the pressure placed on coaches and players by themselves or by parents, fans and the community, but the drive to win continues to intensify and that can sometimes pill out onto the field.
HOW TO DO BETTER
While neither Budd nor DiFalco, nor other local coaches The Suburbanite spoke to, had a comprehensive plan for reducing ejections and calming down the tenor of games across the board, it’s clear that all involved believe in controlling the aspects of the equation they can control.
Budd recalled a 2014 game while he was coaching St. Thomas Aquinas when one of his players was grabbed by the facemask and shoved the opposing player who grabbed him. After the fact, the Aquinas staff saw on video that it was a shove and not a punch, but Budd admitted that in that moment, without the benefit of instant replay like officials in college and pro football have, it could have looked like a punch.
"It’s a three-sided partnership with players, coaches and officials," Budd said. "The officials have it tough with ever-changing rules, coaches have responsibility to keep focus on executing and playing game the right way and players have to understand their boundaries."
Due to OHSAA rules, the Aquinas player was ejected from the game and also had to miss the next game, but Budd said any ejections his players may incur are something that has to be evaluated on a case-by-case basis. If it was something like the 2014 incident, the outcome would likely be similar, but if a player did something more egregious, the punishment would be more severe.
DiFalco agreed, saying each situation should be evaluated individually by a coach and school, and believes that coaches can play a big role in setting the tone for their team.
"It’s my job as a head coach to lead by example and to have high standards for our players. One thing I reemphasize a lot is our guys’ ability to get to the next play, to not let a call or a missed shot affect them getting to the next play," DiFalco said. "We’ve talked a lot about this summer, that in order to have a really good team, we have to be able to get to the next play. Working under (former University of Akron head men’s basketball) coach (Keith) Dambrot is not letting that sort of thing bother you or prevent you from getting to the next play."
Ultimately, there doesn’t seem to be a one-stop, easy fix for the ejection issue. With hundreds of member schools across dozens of OHSA-sponsored sports, there are thousands of players, coaches, officials and fans in the equation and all play some role in the atmosphere at games. While the OHSAA seems likely to try to create new tactics to address the sportsmanship issue, much of the burden remains on those on the field in various capacities to make sure that their emotions don’t lead them to cross any lines in the pursuit of victory.
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