Officially a touchy subject

MIAA handshakes cause frustration

Email|Print| Text size + By Bob Holmes
Globe Staff / February 9, 2008

The Massachusetts Interscholastic Athletic Association's dispute with basketball officials has ended with the MIAA moving on, and the officials wanting to continue the discussion.

At issue for more than a year has been the postgame handshake rule, which requires officials to remain on the court to observe the handshakes between the teams. Soccer and hockey already had the rule in place, and the Massachusetts Interscholastic Athletic Council voted, 14-1, in November in favor of applying the rule to all sports.

For the regular season, basketball officials were only recommended to remain on the court, with their presence becoming mandatory during the boys' and girls' state tournaments. Officials were told they could skip the handshake if they felt their safety was at risk. But the Massachusetts State Basketball Officials Association balked at the rule, still citing concern for their members' safety, as well as liability issues should something occur during the handshake.

The MIAC vote triggered meetings, e-mails, and phone calls between the MIAA and the MSBOA. The result was a Feb. 1 deadline set by the MIAA for officials to enroll, minus the MSBOA's blessing, to work the tournament. According to a letter posted on the MIAA website Wednesday, 715 officials have enrolled, more than enough to handle the boys' and girls' tournaments. The total represents roughly half the registered officials in the state.

Since Feb. 1, the MIAA had agreed to measures that would guarantee the safety of the officials, including the use of probation officers, similar to what was used at Gillette Stadium for the high school Super Bowls. This information was communicated to the 715 enrolled officials.

But while the MIAA is moving on with the officials it has, MSBOA lawyer Larry Machione said Thursday that because the MIAA has addressed the safety concerns, the other MSBOA officials are ready to work the tournaments, should the MIAA agree to reopen enrollment. The MSBOA believes that many of the 715 are freshman and JV officials who have never worked a varsity tournament game. By reopening the enrollment, the MSBOA contends, there's time to get the best officials on the court by tournament time.

"We don't know any of this," MIAA deputy director Bill Gaine said yesterday. "The rank and file met the deadline. Through the media they're telling us everything is over? That doesn't make sense. Your message to me is all new. They've never provided that information to us.

"We've been frustrated for a month on this thing. We just went our own way and established this opportunity for officials to enroll and participate."

The discussions have been frustrating for Gaine. "We've been through all the dances. But we continue to get all sorts of written responses from them that they wouldn't cooperate."

The frustration goes both ways. According to Machione, the MIAA refused to inform the MSBOA whether there would be mandatory postgame handshakes. According to a Jan. 27 letter from Machione to MSBOA members, "in regard to the safety issue, the MIAA was asked directly [at a Jan. 10 meeting] whether or not the [postgame handshake] would take place in the tournament. They refused to give us a straight answer. In fact, they joked in their response that they had not answered our question."

Safety was a major concern to the MSBOA, but Gaine doesn't feel the concerns are justified.

"Talk to [Reading athletic director and 35-year official] Phil Vaccaro," said Gaine. "Line [officials] up and ask them, 'When were you assaulted?' It's the opposite. It's not out of control.

"The culture of the game is such that they are committed to running off the court when the buzzer sounds. That simple behavior is what we are trying to change. We're all partners in the educational mission. The rule has proven itself in hockey and soccer. This one group of officials has said they won't cooperate."

Machione disagrees. "They're making officials out to be the bad guys," he said. "The bottom line is the officials want to work the games. We're not against a handshake."

But many of the state's top officials won't be at the tournaments to witness the handshakes.

"We've got to move on," said Gaine. "We've got a tournament to run."

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