Archive for September, 2015

SPORT SAFETY: How Do We Keep Our Athletes Calm and Under Control?

When Intense Games Spiral Out of Control

 by Doug Abrams

Before Friday night, September 4, John Jay High School’s football team likely attracted few followers outside the local San Antonio, Texas area. But national anonymity ended literally overnight, when two John Jay players allegedly assaulted a referee in the final moments of a road game that the Mustangs lost to Marble Falls High, 15-9.

As the Marble Falls quarterback took the snap and handed off, one John Jay defensive player blind-sided the unsuspecting referee, and his teammate quickly speared the official after he fell to the ground. Inadvertent collisions between players and officials sometimes occur, but these hits appeared orchestrated and deliberate. The video played on television from coast to coast, and it quickly went viral, with more than 11 million YouTube views so far.

The two players said afterwards that a John Jay assistant coach had in effect ordered the action, by telling them on the sidelines that the referee “needs to pay for cheating us” (or something similar)  with calls that had gone against the team. The two players also claimed that the referee had passed racial slurs earlier in the game, a charge the referee denied. Pending further investigation, the school district suspended the two players, placed them in an alternative school, and suspended the assistant coach. Reportedly the assistant coach initially admitted targeting the referee and then left the team.

“That’s Where the Leadership Starts”

The University Interscholastic League, which administers Texas high school athletics, continues its investigation and factfinding. The book remains open, but one UIL executive committee member’s early comment caught my attention because its importance transcends football and any one game.

According to the Associated Press, the committee member questioned whether John Jay’s coaches “should have done more to calm emotions in a tense game.” He described “punches thrown, late hits and ejections” before the incident that gained national attention. “The only thing our kids really have is our coaches,” the committee member said, “That’s where the leadership starts.” The AP reported that the committee member called the September 4 game “a time bomb waiting to happen. And it did.”

Youth league and interscholastic games frequently feature intensity stoked by what former NBA player Bob Bigelow calls “the hot blood of emotions.” This column concerns the responsibilities of coaches and parents before, during, and after games when the adults can reasonably anticipate “time bombs.” Rivalries do not fester, and emotions usually do not spiral out of control, on the spur of the moment.

“That’s What You Get for Messing”

Safety may be the downward spiral’s first casualty. The John Jay football incident recalls a suburban Chicago junior varsity ice hockey game that ended tragically in November, 1999. With only seconds remaining on the clock, New Trier High School was comfortably ahead of its bitter rival, Glenbrook North High School, 7-4. It was the teams’ first faceoff since Glenbrook North had edged New Trier, 3-2, for the Illinois state junior varsity hockey title the prior season.

The November hockey game deteriorated from the start. In the stands, each team’s parents and students taunted the other’s fans and players. On the ice, players traded taunts and squared off in altercations unrestrained by their coaches. One coach reportedly even left the bench and strode onto the ice during the game to confront a referee. Glenbrook North’s coach allegedly targeted New Trier’s 15-year-old sophomore co-captain Neal Goss, whose three goals helped seal the victory. The referees called sixteen penalties, a particularly high number for a junior varsity hockey game.

At the final buzzer or within a second or two afterwards, a 15-year-old Glenbrook North player skated full speed across the ice, blind-sided Goss, and body checked him head-first into the boards. “That’s what you get for messing,” the player reportedly said as Goss lay prone on the ice, permanently paralyzed from the neck down.

Compromising Safety

With responsible control and supervision, coaches and parents could have scripted a safer ending to the suburban Chicago JV hockey game, whose final score seemed so important at the time but quickly faded from memory. For one thing, adults could have cooled tempers as game day approached. All that the adults needed to do was to listen to their players because trash talking and threats of violence do not arise by spontaneous combustion when players arrive to play.

Verbal and physical violence marred the hockey game itself for an hour or more, but no adult in the rink – no parent, coach, referee, or league administrator – had the ethical compass, emotional strength, or sheer common sense to stop the game, deliver a public address announcement requesting calm, instruct the players to regain their composure, or take any other constructive measures to move the teams back from the brink.

Responsible Training and Supervision

The lesson from the New Trier-Glenbrook North game is that when coaches or parents let raw emotion overcome their good judgment in the heat of competition, they increase the risk of preventable injury. The injury may be to a player, an official, a fan, or other bystander.

Parents and coaches who cringed as paramedics carried Neal Goss from the ice rink on a stretcher that cold November night doubtlessly wished that they could have set the clock back and done things differently. But by then it was too late because safety in youth league and interscholastic sports often depends more on 20-20 foresight than on 20-20 hindsight. Regrets and second thoughts cannot always make things right because injury offers no do-overs.

Maintaining composure and self-control throughout a tough game can test the mettle of players and adults alike. At any age, passions of the moment can easily overtake reason. But coaches and parents assume special responsibilities to maintain the safest possible environment whenever their youth leaguers play. If adults had fulfilled their responsibilities that night in November of 1999, Neal Goss would likely have walked out of the suburban Chicago rink because teens trained and supervised by responsible adults do not drive opponents’ heads into the boards at the end of a hockey game.

Nor do teens, trained and supervised by responsible adults, blind-side referees and cut them down on the gridiron.

Sources: Assoc. Press, Coaches’ Conduct Questioned in Hit on Texas Ref, Daily Journal (San Mateo, Calif.), Sept. 10, 2015; Douglas E. Abrams, Player Safety in Youth Sports: Sportsmanship and Respect as an Injury-Prevention Strategy, Seton Hall Journal of Sports and Entertainment Law, vol. 39, p. 1 (2012).




HS CODE OF CONDUCT: Can We Get Our Athletes to Think Ahead if We Toughen Up the School’s Code of Conduct?

It was a real stunner when Mack Breed, the defensive coach at John Jay HS, came forth and acknowledged that he instructed his two defensive backs, Moreno and Rojas, to “hit” the ref and make him pay because the ref had made bad calls against John Jay all game.

And the two football players did just that. They followed the coach’s instructions, and blindsided the ref.

The video tape is very clear.

Now, let me try and put this San Antonio HS football assault into perspective…what the bigger meaning is.

By all accounts, these two HS students seem to be regular kids. Very presentable. Take school seriously.
John Jay HS is an award-winning HS in San Antonio.

And yet…they both claim that their defensive coach instructed them to deliberately take out the ref.

Two questions immediately come into play:

Why in the world would a coach — presumably a grown-up adult – actually instruct a player to deliberately hurt an official in a game?

And why wouldn’t these kids have enough common sense to stop and think about the repercussions of their actions before doing this?

I talk on WFAN all the time about the importance of accountability, and why our kids need to learn this crucial concept….to learn how to think ahead about their actions BEFORE THEY do it. In short, it’s a vital skill that teenagers have to consciously learn.

As a parent (or coach), if you can teach your youngster to always think ahead about what kinds of consequences their actions will have, then you have done an excellent job in teaching your kid to become mature. In this case, I would like to ask Rojas and Moreno to explain what they thought would happen to the ref if they hit him hard from behind, and also what kind of punishment they might be given for doing that.

The kids make their attack in the middle of a HS football game, with lots and lots of witnesses. And of course, every play in the game is videotaped.

And yet they still did it. In short, they didn’t think first about their actions.


I know I’m “old school” about this….but I do wonder about the seemingly lax rules that abide in Codes of Conduct. Many schools in this country give athletes several chances to screw up before the penalties start to become harsh.

Look, I understand that teenagers make mistakes. But my argument is that why are we so kind and forgiving? That is, if we made it abundantly clear to our teenage athletes that you don’t get a second chance, I wonder whether that might force them to think twice before doing stupid things.

That might sound like a modern day form of tough love, but I do think it’s an approach worth considering. If there were a zero-tolerance approach with today’s student-athletes, maybe they would think twice before getting drunk at a party, or breaking team curfew, or sending out something stupid on their Twitter account, or before they decide to assault a ref from behind.

Once they did begin to think ahead about their actions, they progress from being teenagers into mature adults.

In this case, nobody has asked the two football players what or how they thought they would be punished. Or if they realized they could really hurt the ref.

I presume they were just more interested in gaining some positive feedback from their coach for their actions….obviously, the coach is not very smart either by telling the kids to hit the ref.

So my takeaway is this: we really need to get our coaches and parents to make penalties and punishments really stand up so that there’s no temptation to break the rules. There’s nothing wrong with hazing a zero-tolerance policy in place. Kids will live with it and will learn from it. Besides, it might just prevent all sorts of other terrible incidents from taking place.

I would suggest you sit down with your HS athletic director to see if the time has come to toughen up your school’s Code of Conduct. You might be surprised at how lenient it is.


ACCOUNTABILITY WITH ATHLETES: Yet Another Horrible HS Football Incident….

So, the two defensive backs from John Jay HS in San Antonio. TX, go on national TV (Good Morning America) and try to present themselves as good, wholesome kids, that their actions in which they blindsided the ref does not truly reflect who they are.

And to “justify” their actions, the two kids made the following defense: that their defensive coach had told them, “You have to hit the ref….he has to pay for cheating us.” And that the ref had made racist comments during the game. And finally, the kids were most apologetic for their actions against the ref.

The two students also pointed out that they were excellent students, and this kind of aggressive behavior was not the norm for them. In short, that they aren’t thugs.

Meanwhile, at the end of the GMA interview, the kids’ lawyer, then recommended that since they had been suspended from school and kicked off the football team, they had been punished enough.

Then, last weekend, in a heated game between Linden HS (NJ) and Immaculata HS, during the course of play, two opposing linemen got tangled up in a play, with the end result that one player wrestled the other player’s helmet off. And once the helmet was off, the player immediately wound up and smacked the opposing player in the head with it. The injured player needed 10 stitches to close the wound.

Ironically, the refs working that game gave the kid who swung the helmet an unsportsmanlike conduct penalty, but for some reason, he wasn’t ejected.

What do these incidents mean? 

As Steve Kallas and I debated this AM on my radio show, it would seem that kids today have been well-trained in being contrite AFTER the fact. That is, they’re very good at apologizing for their actions, explaining after the incident that their behavior was not in keeping with who they are, etc. The kid who hit the kid with the helmet also apologized.

Now, the legal authorities in Texas as well as in NJ still have not decided what kinds of criminal charges to bring against these football players, but to me, the bigger issue is why, as sports parents, we can’t get our athletes to THINK AHEAD BEFORE they do stupid and regrettable things.

In this case, it would appear the ref who was hit from behind seems to be okay and not injured. And the kid who got smacked in the head with his own helmet is alright as well, although he now sports 10 stitches.

But suppose that kid had been knocked out from the blow and suffered a serious concussion? And suppose that ref had been paralyzed from that hit?

Apologies from the miscreant athletes wouldn’t seem to count for much then.

Even worse, in both of these cases, the sad truth is that all of this was totally unnecessary and uncalled for. I just hope and pray that we don’t have to witness another terrible incident like these. Parents, please always remind your kids to always think before they act!

SPORTSMANSHIP: Parents – It All Starts with You and Your Behavior

 September Is Sportsmanship Month

 By Doug Abrams

Liberty Mutual Insurance, through the Play Positive program with Positive Coaching Alliance, has named September as “Sportsmanship Month.” Several youth sports national governing bodies have joined. The initiative comes as sportsmanship in youth leagues continues to suffer strain, particularly among many adults who should be setting the example.

The Play Positive program reiterates disquieting findings from its 2014 Sportsmanship Survey, which questioned 2,000 parents and coaches of 7-12-year-old youth leaguers. The survey, conducted by ORC International, carried a margin of error of +/- 1.99%.

Sixty percent of respondents reported “either witnessing or participating in negative or abusive sideline behavior” by parents or youth coaches. Twenty-six percent of parents said that they had witnessed a verbally abusive coach, and 16% of parents said that they had witnessed a physical confrontation between parents. Fifty-five percent of coaches said that they had experienced parents yelling negatively at officials or their own children, and two in five coaches said that they had experienced parents yelling negatively at other children.

The “Worst Behaved In the World”

In a similar survey that the Play Positive program commissioned in 2013, 40% of youth coaches said that they had experienced parents yelling negatively at other children. Fifty-five percent of the coaches said that they had experienced parents yelling negatively at their own children. Forty-four percent said that they had experienced parents yelling negatively at officials, and 39% said that they had experienced parents yelling at them.

After several other national youth sports surveys found similar disturbing rates of abusive adult behavior, Reuters News and the market research company Ipsos jointly conducted a survey in 22 nations. The Reuters-Ipsos survey ranked parents in the United States as the world’s “worst behaved” parents at children’s sports events. Sixty percent of U.S. adults who had attended youth sports contests reported that they had seen parents become verbally or physically abusive toward coaches or officials. Runners-up were parents in India (59%), Italy (55%), Argentina (54%), Canada (53%) and Australia (50%).

The Role of Parents and Coaches

If Liberty Mutual’s 2014 survey holds a silver lining, it is that 75% of parents and coaches acknowledged that “teaching sportsmanship is the responsibility of parents.” Parents (and coaches) fulfill this responsibility by delivering two primary lessons about sportsmanship and the desire to win with respect. Delivery depends not only on the adults’ words, but also on their actions.

The First Lesson: Desire to Win

The first lesson is that sportsmanlike athletes want to win. Athletes who are indifferent or unconcerned about the score should not play because they deny themselves and opponents physically and emotionally invigorating competition.

But the integrity of sports also depends on pursuing victory within the rules of the game and the bounds of decorum, win, lose or draw. The British Association of Coaches strikes the right balance: “Sport without fair play is not sport and honours won without fair play can have no real value.”

The Second Lesson: Respect

The second primary lesson (related to the first) is that by encouraging respect for the game, sportsmanship can strengthen the desire to win. Sportsmanlike competitors do not turn soft on opponents, and they do not let down their guard.

Ryne Sandberg hit the target at the ceremony enshrining him in the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown in 2005. “[I]f there was a single reason I am here today,” the Chicago Cubs star told the local and national audience, “it is because of one word – respect.”

“I was taught,” he said, that “you never, ever disrespect your opponent or your teammates or your organization or your manager and never ever your uniform.” “I played [the game] right because that’s what you’re supposed to do – play it right and with respect.

Sandberg’s respect fortified his desire to win and sustained his clean play throughout his 16-year big league career.  He would not have put up Hall of Fame numbers if he had softened his approach to competition, or if he had let down his guard.

Looking Toward the Future

Americans consistently link sports participation to children’s physical and emotional growth, so it may seem a shame that we need to recognize sportsmanship months or sportsmanship days in the first place. Ideally we should not have to hawk sportsmanship the way trade associations hawk “National Tulip Month” or similar commercial promotions designed to boost sales. Sportsmanship is a value and a virtue, not a commodity.

Youth leaguers are not born with attitudes about sportsmanship and respect but, like other children, learn what they watch over time. Youth leaguers react to the verbal and non-verbal cues passed by the adults most directly influential in their lives. Adults watch their children as they play, but the children also watch the adults. Surveys pointing southward appear troubling, but they can also stimulate beneficial change.


Sources: Liberty Mutual Insurance Declares September “Sportsmanship Month,” (press release Sept. 1, 2015); Liberty Mutual Responsible Sports, 2014 Sportsmanship Survey,; Liberty Mutual Insurance Responsible Sports, New Survey Identifies Decline of Sportsmanship in Youth Sports According to Parents and Coaches, (June 3, 2014 press release); Parents and Coaches Express Conflicting Opinions Regarding Priorities in Youth Sports, (2013 survey); Liberty Mutual Insurance Responsible Sports, (Sept. 7, 2013 press release); Reuters, U.S., India Parents Seen as Worst Behaved at Kids’ Sports, (Apr. 7, 2010).

ACCOUNTABILITY WITH ATHLETES: What Do We Do with HS Football Players Who Attack Refs in a Game?

So by now, I’m going to assume you have seen the very disturbing video of two HS football players in San Antonio deliberately blindsiding a HS ref in a football game. This story has drawn national attention, and rightfully so.

The violent acts speak for themselves: the first kid hits the unsuspecting ref from behind, and once the ref is on the ground, the other player hits him full on as though he’s being tackled. It’s a most disturbing video. Fortunately, the ref , Robert Watts, seemed to be uninjured, but according to his attorney, Watts is still receiving medical treatment. Clearly he could have been seriously hurt due to this outrageous action.

We now turn to the legal side of all this. For starters, as attorney Steve Kallas pointed out on my show this AM, these two football players are most likely minors. That’s why the media isn’t going to extreme lengths to provide their names. However, one of the players is a senior, so presumably he’s 17 or 18. The other player is a sophomore.

Texas is one of 20 states that has very tough laws on its books about athletes, coaches, or parents attacking a ref or an umpire. And in Texas, a youngster who is 17 can be tried as an adult.

As of this writing, the local police department in Marble Falls, where the game took place, still hasn’t concluded its investigation, and hasn’t announced what kinds of charges they will bring. Among the other aspects of the case include the allegation that the ref uttered some racial slurs — John Jay HS, the team that the two boys play for, is predominately Hispanic.

There’s also serious talk that an assistant coach for John Jay, Mack Reed, had urged his players that “the ref needs to pay for cheating us.” John Jay had lost the game 15-9 to Marble Falls, and the two players hit the ref with less than a minute to go in the game.

Kallas pointed out that the ref, who is white, has been officiating HS and college football in San Antonio for 14 years. There are no accounts of his using racial taunts in any time of his career. In fact, in the one statement that the ref has made to the media, he acknowledged that he was injured by the attack and  also asserts that he has been “libeled and slandered.” I assume that has to do with the charges that he made racist comments.

We’ll have to wait to see how all of this plays out, but in my opinion, this was a deliberate and premeditated act. I think that’s VERY significant because there have been past incidents where HS or college players have –  in the heat of the moment of a close game – jumped up and attacked or punched refs or umps after a tough call.

But here, this one clearly had to be planned out, and discussed by the two players. Being a premeditated  act to injure the ref is significant.

Next issue: What happens to the John Jay assistant coach, who is currently on administrative leave? He’s the one who allegedly told the players that the ref “had to pay for cheating us.” It would seem the kids took this quite literally. Is the coach liable for exhorting his players in this manner?

Bear in mind that harsh comments and threats are routinely by coaches in a contact sport like football, as in, “I want you to go out there and play smash-mouth football on  that team…really let ‘em really have it!” But can you make a case that these two kids simply followed their coach’s advice?

Next issue: if the older player is 17, will be charged as an adult for assault? If so, he could be looking at some serious jail time. Does it make any difference that maybe he heard some racial taunts? As Kallas explained, no, racial slurs do not justify physical retaliation.

And finally, once the criminal implications are finalized, what’s the civil liability for these two kids and their family? What about the school, John Jay? Could they be found liable for having a coach on its payroll who urged these kids to hurt a game official?

All in all, this is a terrible black eye for HS sports. Even more, have we now reached the point where we have to literally warn and caution our young athletes NOT to attack or assault officials, refs, or umpires? How sad.


DANGERS OF CYBERSPACE: Pace University Football Captain Kicked off Team for Posing in Photo with Confederate Flag While Giving Nazi Salute

I have railed many times on this blog about how incredible it is that young athletes just don’t seem to comprehend the instantaneous and  far-reaching power of social media. Here’s the latest, hard-to-believe incident:

I can only assume –  hope? – that Tyler Owens, who is a captain of the Pace University football team in Pleasantville, NY, thought it was a joke to pose with a Confederate flag draped over his body while making a Nazi salute. Its caption is “The Grand Wizard,” a reference to the traditional leader of the Ku Klux Klan. The photo went viral on Snapchat. A number of African-American students and athletes saw the photo and immediately complained vigorously.

Owens, 6-1, 255 lbs, is a senior defensive lineman at Pace where he served as a captain last season as well. A criminal justice major, he was named to the Northeast-10 Conference Second Team last year.

It is, of course,  hard to comprehend why a senior in college — and a leader on the school’s football team — couldn’t foresee the kinds of problems that this photo would cause. Yes, some have said it was clearly intended as a joke, a prank. But in these sensitive times, it’s hard to find anyone who sees any humor in this kind of staged photo.

And I guess one could argue that Owens is entitled to his First Amendment rights to express his own personal views. Of course, if he really does embrace racist and anti-Semitic philosophies, well, that’s another matter. A very sad matter.

In any event, the president of Pace, Steven J. Friedman, immediately stripped Owens of his captaincy and also has suspended him from playing football while an internal investigation is undertaken. For Owens, this is going to be a very hard lesson to learn — especially because it’s the kind of mistake that is easily avoided.

You just have to wonder….how does this stuff continue to happen?


DANGERS OF HAZING: After a Serious Hazing Incident, HS Football Players Win the Right to Continue Season

Well, if it’s HS football season… then unfortunately, it’s also hazing season.

That’s not to say that hazing doesn’t occur in all sports…it certainly does.  But that being said, hazing seems to be an unwanted annual tradition when it comes to HS football — and especially during August football training camps.

Now, of course, Sayreville HS  of New Jersey was in the national headlines last year, and this past week, that case was adjudicated in juvenile court with several Sayreville HS football players being hit with various punishments. Since they were minors in the eyes of the law, most of them received slaps on the wrists – 50 hours of community service and placed on probation for a year.

Of course, being a minor is no excuse for being stupid or cruel to one’s teammates, but the prosecutor made his ruling.

Personally  — I’m not sure that 50 hours of community service and a year of probation makes the victims of these hazing crimes feel vindicated, but that’s a discussion for another time. I mean, if it were your kid who had been hazed, how would you feel about this ruling?

My point is this….each year we discuss the hazards of hazing, and each year, it never seems to go away. Hazing seems to be fully entrenched in American sports —  and no matter how many times we warn our kids, or hold seminars, the athletes either feel our warnings don’t apply to them, or that they won’t be caught.

And now….here’s our latest hazing incident making headlines. This one is courtesy of Susan B. Wagner HS in Staten Island, where it’s alleged that in late August at an upstate NY football training camp, a number of upperclassmen on the Wagner football team hazed sophomores and antagonized freshman players.

Such hazing accusations included: older players shooting at younger players with a BB gun… drawing obscene cartoons on the younger kids with a permanent marker…players being hit with a broom… and pushing one’s butt into the face of younger players.

Now, again, these are merely allegations at this point…nothing has been proven yet.  But the principal at Wagner HS immediately suspended all football practices AND all games until the investigation is done.

But here’s where this hazing case gets a little interesting….

A bunch of HS seniors on the Wagner football team threatened to file a lawsuit against the Dept of Education saying it’s not fair for the ENTIRE football team to be punished…that their season is now in jeopardy of not happening, that this is the last year they can play varsity football, that they run the risk of losing possible college football scholarships, and that only those kids who were responsible for the hazing should be punished – NOT the entire team.

Now, that’s an interesting point of view — and these seniors were most serious.

They’re claiming that this hazing was only committed by a handful of players, and that it’s not fair to ruin the entire football season because of these miscreants.

And here’s the interesting twist: this past Friday, the Dept of Education basically AGREED with the senior players, and they have LIFTED the suspension on Wagner HS football. In short, the kids are allowed to go back and resume football practices and play games.

Apparently, once the hazing allegations had been uncovered over the last few weeks, the four or five players who were directly involved have been suspended and are the process of being disciplined. But the rest of the team is now cleared to go back to practicing and to continue their games.

In short, because of a handful of bad apples, the school was ready to cancel the season. After all, that universally seems to be the precedent for hazing on a HS team. Just as it happened at Sayreville HS last fall when their season was cancelled and in that case, the long-time coach was dismissed as well.

This reversal by the Dept of Education, then, represents a precedent-setting kind of ruling: that school officials should not immediately cancel a season, but rather, only focus on those kids who were the troublemakers. Sounds like common sense, to be sure, but again, that has rarely been the pattern in these hazing cases.

Was this right thing to do? Are these senior football players to be saluted for sticking up for their last HS season? And how does an administrator figure out which specific kids are to be punished?

And of course, the question needs to be asked: how could the coaches not be aware of these kinds of shenanigans? Most coaches will tell you that they hear rumors and gossip all the time about their players – if that’s true, is it possible that these coaches weren’t aware of something going on? And why didn’t the senior players — who must have heard something about the hazing plans – why didn’t they speak up and prevent this from happening?

These are tough questions, but they need to be asked. After all, hazing still haunts our kids in HS, and until we can find a real way to eradicate it, sadly, it’s just going to continue.