by Tom Lindley
CNHI News Service
— Two figures shaking hands dominate Kentucky’s blue- and gold-colored flag – a statesman and a pioneer, popularly, but not officially, thought to be Henry Clay and Daniel Boone.
How odd, then, that the Kentucky High School Athletic Association has advised educators to rethink the long-standing tradition of teams shaking hands after athletic events. Is sportsmanship dead in the Bluegrass State?
No, but a serious discussion and examination about the post-game ritual is playing out from Paducah to Paintsville. Maybe the topic should be expanded to schools across the country.
A brouhaha erupted when a poorly drafted press release had fans across the state – as well as the nation – outraged that Kentucky’s prep athletic association was either prohibiting or banning players from shaking hands, fist bumping or high-fiving after games. Not so fast. The association simply was trying to say that if handshake lines are part of post-game activities, they were to be supervised by school officials. If that’s not practical or possible, dispense with the exercise, the KHSAA said. Furthermore, game officials would no longer supervise players once the contest is over.
KHSAA Commissioner Julian Tackett warned officials that if further post-game flare-ups continued, participating schools could be sanctioned or fined.
Good for Tackett. He identified a growing problem and tackled it. That’s what effective administrators do.
Violence at high school sporting contests is becoming, if not more prevalent, certainly more acknowledged.
The post-game brawl between two football coaches in Alabama became nationwide news this fall when the fisticuffs were shown on TV and replayed on various websites. It was potentially much worse in Indiana when coaches from Indianapolis Tech and Fort Wayne South started fighting and soon players and a few fans joined in.
Perhaps worst of all, a small army of police officers in Wisconsin – about 27 -- was needed to restore calm after a post-game battle ensued in the handshake line between players from Madison West and Madison Memorial. A “handful” of players received two-game suspensions, officials said.
Amazingly, a football coach in Roosevelt, Utah, suspended his entire team because of attitude and discipline problems. In a letter to the players, he told them he was displeased with how they were representing their school and community. “It is a privilege to play this wonderful game!” Union High coach Matt Labrum wrote his players, according to a story in The Miami Herald. “. . . The lack of character we are showing off the field is outshining what we are achieving on the field.”
Maybe these are just a few examples of extreme actions by players and coaches. But they do paint a disturbing picture and probably a dangerous trend in high school sports.
Handshake lines are ritualistic activities that are common to some high school sporting events. The long-standing practice, at times, does seem strained or awkward. Is it sincere to tell an opposing player “good game” when you have just beaten them by 60 points?
And no wonder nerves are tested when a team wins a heart-stopping game on the last play (or worse a disputed one) and teams line up to shake hands knowing one squad is devastated and the other is jubilant.
Understandably, there have been cases were the post-game handshake has been dropped so players aren’t placed in an emotionally-charged position. Maybe a 10-minute cooling off period would be best, but that’s not practical either.
Poor sportsmanship is a behavior that is learned and in too many cases tolerated. The National Hockey League seemingly promotes fighting, baseball celebrates its bench-clearing brawls, and pro basketball at times gives the appearance of mixed martial arts bouts among giants.
Should any of us wonder why it is becoming commonplace to see outrageous exhibitions among coaches or players at high school sporting events?
Athletes aren’t heroes or gods just because they score the winning touchdown. Yet, too often, that’s how they’re treated.
The coach in Utah summed it up extremely well: “Humbleness, thankfulness, humility, respect, courage and honor are much more important than winning ballgames!”
Kentucky’s Julian Tackett and Utah coach Matt Labrun deserve the public’s praise and support for reminding all of us about sportsmanship and respect. In short, here’s their message: We don’t always get to win, but we can always play like winners.
Tom Lindley is a sports columnist for the CNHI News Service. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.