Foul play stains school athletics

Coast to coast, games are halted by bad behavior

November 07, 2006|By John-John Williams IV | John-John Williams IV,SUN REPORTER

The fouls were piling up, and referees at the Centennial-Oakland Mills high school football game had seen enough. So with the score at 44-0 and Centennial leading, they called the game in the third quarter, rather than risk injury - or a brawl by fans and players.

Days later, school system officials are still investigating what happened in a county with a new civility policy that frowns on bad behavior among students, staff, and parents during and after school.

For Centennial, last Friday's win came after several quarters of excessive fouls - some of them personal fouls - which some witnesses said seemed mostly to be coming from the losing side, a team that has been on the decline in recent years.

"These are serious allegations, and not what we expect at our athletic events or any place else," said Howard County school board Chairman Joshua Kaufman.

Unexpected in Howard County, maybe - but far from unheard of elsewhere, according to national experts.

"It's not a new phenomenon but it's probably an increasing one," said Stanley Teitelbaum, a New York-based sports psychologist and author of Sports Heroes, Fallen Idols. "There seems to be less restraint ... an increased freedom to cross boundaries."

At least one Maryland high school football game is stopped because of unsportsmanlike conduct each year, said Al Ferraro, commissioner of the Washington District Football Officials Association, which provides referees to 40 percent of Maryland high school sporting events.

Earlier this season, officials halted a football game in Prince George's County because they feared the game was getting out of control, he said.

Delaware's high school athletic association is reviewing video from a football game Saturday in which nine players were ejected, according to published reports.

And in the past five years, high school football and basketball games have been called off or postponed in Rhode Island, North Carolina, California and Alabama because of brawls or threats of violence.

"The high school kids are kind of emulating their heroes," Teitelbaum said. "And their heroes are at the college level and even more at the pro level. Players at those levels are not sufficiently recognizing the burden they carry as models for younger athletes."

Last month, brawls marred college games between Miami and Florida International and Dartmouth and Holy Cross. A few weeks earlier, Tennessee Titans lineman Albert Haynesworth was suspended five games for stomping on the head of Dallas Cowboys center Andre Gurode.

Said Ferraro: "Sometimes they get out of control because of what kids and coaches see on TV. They do dumb things."

Friday's incident carries an extra sting in Howard County, which in September adopted a civility policy that covers everything from on-field conduct to e-mail language. Conflicting parties are encouraged to participate in mediation.

Kaufman said he would not be surprised if the policy had not trickled down to students by this point.

"It was passed not that long ago," Kaufman explained. "It would go to the principals and then to the students."

According to fans and Ferraro, who spoke on behalf of the six referees, the officials stopped the game with Centennial in command and the fouls - and tempers - rising.

"The score was out of control, there was no reason to continue," Ferraro said. "We were not having very many plays that were free from fouls. Nobody stomped on somebody's head or beat on somebody."

One Oakland Mills football player declined to comment on the incident when reached on his cellular phone Monday evening.

"We just played hard," he said.

In a move to prevent any clash between fans of the rival teams, officials asked over the public address system that Oakland Mills fans leave the stands first, while Centennial fans were told to stay in their seats.

Kaufman said he was alerted to the situation through an e-mail from an "irate parent" Sunday evening.

"The parent said that they were concerned with what they observed on the football game - with threats and intimidation on the football field," Kaufman said. "My first reaction was concern."

By Monday, one Centennial football parent was circulating an e-mail requesting a copy of game footage.

Bernadette Bechta, the mother of a Centennial football player, holds no ill-well toward Oakland Mills.

"Young people are imperfect," she said. "I was very proud of our Centennial fans and players. They left it up to the coaches. I also feel confident that Oakland Mills will resolve their problem."

Susan Sayre, a member of Oakland Mills booster club, said, "we've not had that problem in the past."

Ironically, Oakland Mills last year was awarded the Sportsmanship Cup, which is given to a Howard County school based on a survey of county high school principals, athletic directors and coaches during three sports seasons.

But the team, which won the state title in 1998, has been winless for the past two years, while Centennial is enjoying one of its best seasons ever.

"Sometimes things change," Mike Williams, coordinator of athletics in Howard County. "Sometimes things happen that are out of control of the best people."

Williams would not assess blame for Friday's incident.

"Everyone needs a fair hearing - both sides of it," Williams said. "The appropriate people in the school system will determine what will happen."

Sun reporters Lem Satterfield and Childs Walkers contributed to this article.

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