Thursday, December 8, 2011

The Raised Fist and the Flying Flag

There’s a high school football story that’s getting a lot of attention of late. Facing Blue Hills in the 4A state championship game in Massachusetts (I refuse to call it the “Super Bowl”) this week, Cathedral High quarterback Matt Owens made what appeared to be a game-winning, or at least lead-changing, 56-yard run. But just inside the Blue Hills 25-yardline, with the ball tucked under his right arm, he raised his left hand over his head, taking two strides that way before finishing his jaunt into the endzone.

His little mini-demonstration, however, was enough to draw a penalty for taunting, nullifying the touchdown. The ball was placed at the spot of the foul; Owens threw an interception on the next play, and Cathedral never scored again, losing 16-12. Owens’s coach and father all-too-predictably whined.

Here’s the coach, Duane Sigsbury:
In the game being played, we won the game. Give Blue Hills a lot of credit. They are a great football team, but we deserve better. The game got taken away from us. If you’re going to take a game away from a kid being excited because he just made the play of his life, shame on you.
And here’s the father, Kenneth Owens:
He raised his hand because he knew was going to the pinnacle. There was nothing dishonorable about the play. There was no doubt it was a touchdown. He gets 20 yards in—and he's not thinking about the rule—and he just raised his hand. He handed the ball to the referee. He didn't spike it. He goes to a Catholic school where they are taught that their God is in the sky. So I know when he raised his hand, he was thanking his Lord for what happened to him today. Football is a team sport. There's lot of kids that are hurting today.
Assigner of officials Joe Cacciatore insisted that:
It’s tough, but the official absolutely made the right call according to the letter of the law. It says it right there in the rules that any attempt to draw attention to yourself, whether it is pointing the finger, raising a fist or anything like that, is a penalty. We’ve been instructed to call it when it happens, it’s zero tolerance now.
Don’t come to me looking for support for zero tolerance policies in general. But you know what? Sometimes they’re appropriate. Don’t tell that to sniveling sportswriters, like MSNBC’s Rick Chandler, however:
File this along with the first graders suspended for bringing a plastic knife to school to spread butter. Where’s our zero tolerance for blundering idiots? Taking common sense and individual judgement [sic.] out of the equation is never a good idea. And besides, if the player was actually praising God as his father claimed, he wasn’t calling attention to himself, now was he?
Where to begin? Let’s start here: it doesn’t matter whether the young man intended anything “dishonorable”; it matters what he did. Was he taunting? Not literally, perhaps, but the rule is pretty specific and pretty clear; it has been a point of emphasis among officiating crews all year, and players were specifically reminded of the rule immediately before the game. Moreover, while I’m not a mind-reader, I do make my living in part by relating gestural patterns to intentions. Young Owens may not have been intentionally taunting, but he sure as hell wasn’t praising God. One looks skyward to do that; Owens didn’t. One points with one’s index finger to God; Owens had a clenched fist. (One might also hope that there are more important things on God’s agenda than intervening in interscholastic athletic competitions.) Matt Owens was celebrating; end of discussion. Is that the same as taunting? It is according to the rulebook if it happens while the play is still underway. (Predictably, of course, only 14% of those responding to an online poll on the Boston Herald site agree with the call.)

Is it a stupid rule? Probably. I do understand the desire to curtail the narcissistic displays that have filtered down from the pros to the high school game. All that’s needed to cut that crap out, of course, is for television networks to cut away from the prima donna moments the way they used to do… and the way they agreed, for example, not to show the idiots who run onto a baseball field. Once pros don’t get airtime for being egocentric buffoons, the emphasis on maturity will find its way into the college and prep games, just as the puerile posturing has done for the past generation. Of course, that won’t happen, because television executives have the minds of 12-year-old boys. Still, there’s a difference between a spontaneous exuberance on the one hand and calculated, vainglorious indulgence on the other. Whereas the recent rule change helps referees in the sense that they no longer need to determine intent (just as a player accidentally grabbing a facemask will still get a personal foul call), it does allow a little less discretion.

Would I have called the penalty had I been that referee? Yes, although not making the call would also be defensible. Rules are rules, and this one doesn’t go away because some kid just made a great run. Indeed, it’s more important then than ever. But there’s a more significant point here.

A long time ago, I went to a Little League baseball game. My cousin Dick, two years older than I, was coaching, and his young son was on the team. The players were probably eight or nine years old. One of Dick’s young charges was called out on strikes. Returning to the bench, the boy complained that the pitch was really a ball. He was right: the pitch was outside and probably high, as well. Dick said, simply, “if you’ve got two strikes on you, and a pitch is close enough that the umpire might call it a strike, swing. We’ve talked about this.” And he patted the kid on the back and sent him out to play defense.

Dick’s wisdom in that moment has stuck with me for over 20 years. If you don’t want the officials to decide the game, don’t let them. Swing at close pitches with two strikes. Keep your stupid arm down when you’re about to score the go-ahead touchdown in the state championship game. Don’t let the referee make a judgment call against you when there’s no reason in the world not to obey the rules. Score the touchdown, then celebrate. Eight-year-old kids can wrap their heads around this concept. So can 18-year-olds, if we insist on it.

The referee, as far as I’m concerned, is blameless. Owens the younger did something dumb, but he’s a kid. I’m perfectly willing to believe he intended no disrespect to his opponents, but that of course doesn’t really change anything. Owens the elder, on the other hand, is an ignoramus. Your kid made a mistake. Stand by him. But don’t give us this line of crap about praising God. The penalty against your son was reasonable if not right. Shut up.

The biggest jackass, of course, is the coach. You’ve still got a chance to win this game if you keep your head. So, what are you going to call? Hint: maybe you don’t have your “visibly upset” quarterback throw the ball on a 1st down play when your line just opened a hole I could have run through for good yardage. You’re not only a petulant, unsportsmanlike ass, you’re also a moron. Shut up.

As for Rick Chandler: he, no doubt, gets paid to say snarky things on the internet. He is uncritical, unthinking, and unable to separate real justice from B-movie plots. He wants to know where is the zero tolerance policy for “blundering idiots.” Right here. Bye, Rick.

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