BUILDING CHARACTER or OUT OF THE FRAY

After the Griffith and Hammond boys basketball teams got into a benches-clearing brawl that involved fans coming out of the stands and onto the court last winter, the Indiana High School Athletic Association canceled the remainder of their seasons.

The schools, however, received a court injunction that allowed them to play in the postseason tournament, and Griffith made it all the way to the Class 3A state finals.

Last month, South Bend Washington and Michigan City had their football season-opener called late in the first half after a fight. Several players and an assistant coach were suspended, and the schools were placed on probation for all of this year and next year.

Clearly, the IHSAA is trying to send a message that fighting won’t be tolerated.

“Our membership and our board of directors are tired of these incidences where adults and students can’t control themselves in an education-based environment,” IHSAA commissioner Bobby Cox said. “If they can’t play with dignity and calm and collectiveness, then maybe they don’t deserve to play in the tournament.”

But is the governing body worried that if they do suspend teams from the tournament — as it did in the Griffith-Hammond case — its rulings might not hold up in court?

“I think it’s a reflection of our society,” Cox said. “I have a great concern when the courts get into a private organization where the membership is voluntary. I have a great concern that the court is getting into things they don’t have to get involved in. If (schools) choose to enjoy the privileges of the organization — which we provide catastrophic medical insurance and provide rule books and allow them in tournaments free of charge — the least we can expect is that they follow the rules.

“I think it’s a bad, bad, bad precedent,” he said. “They don’t have to be a member of the organization. Are we at the point where we’re going to let the courts decide a block-charge call? Are we going to let the courts decide a pass interference call? I think it’s a very slippery slope. I don’t think the courts should be involved in that.”

Champions of Character

A couple years ago, the IHSAA board of directors became concerned with the amount of incidences that were happening at high school sporting events.Cox said that while the public focuses on altercations such as the Griffith-Hammond basketball and South Bend Washington football games and an Indianapolis Tech-Fort Wayne Wayne football brawl from 2013, thousands of contests go off with proper sportsmanship.So last year, the IHSAA began a program called “Champions of Character,” where all 410 member schools receive a sportsmanship score. Schools start out with 100, and big points are deducted for any player, coach or fan ejections. One point is added if the IHSAA determines a significant act of sportsmanship is performed.

If a player is ejected from a contest, they have to complete the National Federation of High Schools sportsmanship course and a free online curriculum before they are allowed to return to competition. Coaches, administrators or fans who are ejected must complete a role modeling and behavior course before being allowed to return.

“We have a lot going on with sportsmanship,” Cox said. “We are attempting to remain different than all of the other stanchions of sport in our society. We are going to try to promote education within high school sports, and we are going to continue to hold schools accountable.”

Columbus East received a perfect sportsmanship score of 100 last year and will receive a 2014-15 placard to add to the sportsmanship banner it won a couple years ago.

Schools that fell below 60 last year had to have their athletics director, principal and superintendent go to the IHSAA office and make a presentation to the board about how they were going to do better this year. Others with slightly higher scores had to have a video conference with the IHSAA.

That was the case with Columbus North, which received a 68, thanks to two coach ejections, which each result in a 20-point deduction. North was able to earn back a few points when its teams watched the IHSAA’s sportsmanship video.

“I don’t think they really have a choice in the matter, other than to do what they’re doing,” North AD Jeff Hester said. “They’re being forced to respond to these incidences, and I think they’re responding appropriately.”

Preventative measures

Hester and new East AD Pete Huse are taking steps to try to prevent actions of bad sportsmanship that could lead to an ejection.At North, Hester had an all-sports meeting for parents and athletes in Memorial Gym this summer and played a sportsmanship video that shows how to behave as a fan and an athlete. All of the Bull Dogs coaches had to take an online sportsmanship class.North also makes announcements about sportsmanship at games. At home football games this fall, a video featuring star wide receiver Alex Algee talking about displaying good sportsmanship at that night’s game is played.

“It’s definitely a high importance for us,” Hester said. “We try our best to be proactive and educate everybody that comes to an event, whether they’re a spectator or an athlete.”

Even though East received a perfect score last year, Huse, who is in his first year at East after moving from Greenwood, isn’t taking anything for granted.

“Basically, the big thing is educating the kids and coaches about ‘If this happens, you have to sit out a game. You have to take this class online before you’re eligible again,’” Huse said. “In the coaches meetings, I’m going to push it on the agenda.

“It’s so easy to lose points, but it’s almost impossible to gain points,” he said. “There’s a lot of good things going on, but you only get one point for a good thing. Then, a freshman kid makes a mistake in a freshman football game, and we lose five. It’s kind of tough.”

Bob Gaddis was the Olympians’ AD the past 10 years. Gaddis is also the East football coach and tries to prevent potentially volatile situations from escalating on the field.

“If one of our opponents is doing something, we alert the officials,” Gaddis said. “If one of our guys is talking, I’ll tell them to talk to the player and talk to me to make sure we get it stopped.”

IHSAA assistant commissioner Sandra Walter, who administers the sportsmanship program, says she thinks the initiative is taking a positive effect.

“I hope to tell you a year from now that it’s improving,” Walter said. “I’ve seen fewer unsporting and ejections in soccer than before. Our schools are taking it seriously, and we need to. There’s a lot to be taught on the interscholastic fields that we play. It slowly starts to creep away from us a little bit, and we need to rein it back in.

“We are holding our kids accountable, and it’s not too much to ask,” she said. “These are young adults, and they’re our leaders.”

At a glance

Recent high profile cases of fighting among IHSAA schools:

Sept. 27, 2013, Indianapolis Tech vs. Fort Wayne Wayne football. With Tech leading 24-6 late in the game, a fight broke out that included opposing assistant coaches coming to blows. The two assistants were suspended for the remainder of the season, while the two head coaches and several players from each side were suspended for a game.

Feb. 7, 2015, Griffith vs. Hammond boys basketball: After a Griffith player was fouled hard while going up for a dunk early in the game, a fight broke out, and fans spilled onto the court. Both programs were suspended for the remainder of the season, but that ruling was overturned by a judge prior to the sectional, and Griffith ended up making it all the way to the Class 3A state title game.

Aug. 21, 2015, South Bend Washington vs. Michigan City football. With South Bend Washington leading 20-13 late in the first half, a fight broke out. Six players and a South Bend Washington assistant coach were suspended for a game, and both schools were placed on probation for all of this year and next year.

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Ted Schultz is sports editor for The Republic. He can be reached at tschultz@therepublic.com or 812-379-5628.