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. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RNCrs63JeuM
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.
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).