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Derrick Z. Jackson

A refreshing dose of values in sports

By Derrick Z. Jackson
Globe Columnist / November 27, 2010

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HOW QUAINT. Values and sports do not have to be mutually exclusive. In an outburst of sanity, several Massachusetts high schools, confronted with bad behavior, put their foot down, even at the cost of hanging up the cleats.

The first fine example is Maynard High School. It suspended so many football players who showed up drunk at the homecoming dance that it did not have enough left to compete safely in its Thanksgiving game against Clinton. So the game was cancelled. Further, Maynard Superintendent Mark Masterson told the Globe that the parents of the suspended players “were cooperative in the hearings,’’ a sign that home values were on the same page as school values.

That was certainly not the case at Needham High School, where some parents sued instead of supporting Principal Jonathan Pizzi when he suspended a reported 10 girls from the soccer team for alleged hazing. Those parents wanted their daughters to remain eligible for a state tournament game, but a judge refused their plea and a depleted Needham lost. Pizzi courageously held his ground against claims that the allegations of older players leading first-year players around on dog leashes and smashing pies in their faces was either blown out of proportion or just clean ol’ fun with the good ol’ excuse of, no blood, no hazing.

The parents rebelled, even though, as Massachusetts Interscholastic Athletic Association spokesman Paul Wetzel said, “One person’s fun is another person’s humiliation.’’ So Pizzi deserves special praise, as well as Needham schools superintendent Dan Gutekanst, who said Pizzi “acted with fairness, humility and accountability.’’ Pizzi also received backing from the high school’s football coach, David Duffy, who said “the students, especially the leaders of the team, need to understand that they have a responsibility to behave appropriately.’’

That message carried over to Agawam High School, where Superintendent Mary Czajkowski this week suspended four players and four coaches from its Thanksgiving game with West Springfield for alleged hazing. No details of what happened have been reported, but Czajkowski said it “went beyond what I call towel whipping.’’ The game itself was not cancelled, but the suspension of a host of coaches along with the players, including the head coach, was a welcome decision that recognized the responsibility of the adults.

Finally, while not in the same category of hazing or underage alcohol, we should not forget sportsmanship. That value is going the way of baseball stars faking being hit by pitches, top college football teams running up the score for higher Bowl Championship Series computer points, and athletes celebrating every dunk, sack, or reception with screaming, chest thumping, dancing, and flexing of muscles.

A pleasant counter is Lawrence High School’s football team. Coach Mike Yameen has banned celebrations on the field, even chest bumps and high fives, and hauls players off the field when they overly gesticulate. It is a throwback to yesteryear, with Lawrence quarterback Nathan Baez telling the Globe, “When you score, you just hand the ball to the referee.’’

Yameen, 42, said the inspiration for his rule is Hall of Fame running back Barry Sanders of the Detroit Lions who was indeed lionized by sportswriters for just handing the ball to referees in the 1980s and 90s. “When I got here six years ago, we were getting beat pretty good and I didn’t like it when the other team celebrated,’’ Yameen said. “It’s now like every play is like winning the Super Bowl. I tell my guys don’t do it because you don’t want them doing it to you.’’

Yameen’s version of the Golden Rule shines brightly in a sports world dulled with tarnish. The fact that Maynard, Needham, and Agawam put rules against hazing and alcohol above tournaments and holiday tradition is a confluence of decisions that should not go unnoticed. Those schools restore the faith that sports can remain a vehicle where all of us can learn values.

Derrick Z. Jackson can be reached at jackson@globe.com.