From the Gridiron to the Courtroom!

When you look at the calendar, you readily see we have reached a very special time of the year.  Like everyone in the state, you’re getting ready to enjoy the festive holiday known as Thanksgiving.  It’s a special time where we gather with family and friends and give thanks for the many blessings we all have.  If you’re like a lot of West Virginians, you’re thrilled its buck season and you probably know the perfect spot in your home to hang that “8 pointer”!  And, if you’re like me, you’re thrilled this is the week when we finally find out which six teams will compete on Wheeling Island Stadium December 3rd and 4th in the 2010 Super Six!

However, for high school football fans, this week is unlike any we have had to endure in a long time.  I could easily write my commentary this week about the semi-final games that will be played across the state this Friday and Saturday.  And, believe me I wish that was the story this week. 

Sadly, it is not. 

We are all aware of the “situation” that occurred near the end of the South Charleston-Hurricane football contest that resulted in the game being “called” with fourteen seconds still left on the clock and the Black Eagles leading the Redskins 30-26.  The “melee”, the “brawl”, the “fight”; call it whatever you want, was a very sad ending to what was a great football game between two very good teams. 

As I write this commentary this morning, four of the players that were named by the game officials and subsequently suspended by the rules of the WVSSAC, have obtained legal representation and who knows where that will lead.  This situation has been talked about and written about by everyone who has an opinion.  I have been asked countless times this week for my opinion on the situation and for me to repeat all of that in this column serves no purpose. 

However, in the MetroNews offices in Charleston, I work with a gentleman who has been a coach and is currently an active official with the WVSSAC.  His name is Larry Ledbetter and he asked me to read “a letter to the editor” about this situation that he wrote and I thought as part of my commentary this week I would share that with you.  Larry’s letter is printed below and I will close my commentary this week with his thoughts.  But first, a reminder that the final WENDYS HIGH SCHOOL GAMENIGHT program of this season will be heard live this Friday night from 9:30 to midnight on 45 great radio stations across the state and if you’re traveling for the Thanksgiving holiday and are not within range of these stations, the program is also streamed live at  We have three of the semi-final games scheduled for this Friday night and we will have all of those scores, plus we will take a look ahead at the schedule for Saturday.  I have a feeling we will even discuss the dilemma we find ourselves when the gridiron is transferred to the courtroom.

Guest Commentary:  Teachable Moments – Larry Ledbetter

One of the best TV shows ever was the Andy Griffith show.  One of my favorite episodes was when Opie was shooting his new slingshot and hit and killed a mama bird leaving a nest full of baby birds to fend for themselves. I can remember Opie kneeling and telling the bird to get up and fly away – but she doesn’t.  Andy doesn’t yell at him but simply opens the window and draws your attention to the baby birds crying for their mama.  He uses the situation to teach Opie that his actions have consequences. Sometimes we lose sight of the forest for the trees and miss out on teachable moments with our kids.

I have coached and/or officiated high school sports for over 24 years.  Many of my former players are on my facebook friends list.  I think, maybe optimistically so, that most of my former players would agree that while I’m a very competitive person, I’m a fanatic about the rules.  I know why the rules are there. I know what happens when the line drawn by the rules is crossed as well.  If you take too many steps in basketball, it’s a travel.  If you touch the ball with your hands in soccer, it’s a handball.  If the defense crosses the line before the ball is snapped in football, it’s offsides. If you swing and miss three times in softball or baseball, you’re out – those are rules – I get it. 

If you break a rule, there is a predetermined penalty to be enforced for breaking that rule.  I had rules for my team when I coached too.  I demanded excellence.  I wanted perfection. I wanted my teams to work so hard in practice, when they got into the game they were prepared physically and mentally.  I attempted to put pressure and stress on my players in practice to the point that when the stress and pressure of the game got intense, they could handle it.  I can remember carrying a young lady off of the floor in Columbus, GA one night because she was hit so hard and injured, she couldn’t continue.  My team didn’t retaliate.  I can remember another instance where one young man literally had his teeth knocked out in a game and again our team did not retaliate. It takes a lot to stay calm under pressure.  I tried to teach my teams to play by the rules and not be bad sports.  Thinking back over the years, I cannot recall one instance where the kids I coached crossed the line of sportsmanship.  There were times though, when team rules were broken. There were times when a team punishment had to be enacted. Kids were suspended from teams. Players weren’t allowed to start or were benched.  I hope the kids that played for me learned the value of making good decisions.

This past weekend in West Virginia there was a playoff football game where players crossed the line.  A player from Hurricane High School punched a kid from South Charleston and in a split second many players made a decision.  It was the wrong decision.  A fight broke out between the two schools.  The police got involved, allegedly pepper spray was used and a report that one kid was tased.  It was ugly. Players on both sides were ejected.  The game had 14 seconds remaining and the coaches decided not to play the final play – probably a smart decision.  It was a great game: competitive with close scoring, going back and forth all night. It was marred though, by the fight.  The rules in high school sports are pretty clear; if you fight you are ejected.  In West Virginia, the Secondary Schools Activities Commission has a rule: If you are ejected – you are suspended from the next game. That’s where the line is drawn.  It doesn’t say that good players are exempt. It doesn’t say players from one ethnicity are exempt.  The rule doesn’t differentiate between rich and poor.  If you fight – you are ejected – you are suspended – period.

South Charleston lost their starting quarterback (WV player of the year last year), one of their best receivers, and two starters on defense.  Because SC won the game, those players have been suspended immediately.  Hurricane lost the game. Their season is over.  Hurricane players who were ejected will have to sit out the first game next season (or in the next sport in the case of seniors).  I hear (or read) people calling for fairness in this situation.  My contention is that it WAS fair . . . it just wasn’t equal.  For years I’ve tried to explain to my own kids the difference between fair and equal. Of course this punishment isn’t equal.  SC won and their next game is this Saturday. By rule, those ejected sit out THIS game. Hurricane’s players LOST therefore they technically cannot be suspended next week. By rule, they will have to sit out the next game played and they will – next year.

Every year, the SSAC has a meeting with coaches and officials and every year – without exception – they go over the fighting rule.  Coaches know the rules going into the season.  People should not be surprised when the rule is enforced. But now fans and parents are calling for fairness. Now, parents are hiring lawyers and filing injunctions so their kids can play in the playoff game next week.  What are we teaching our kids? It’s OK to break the rules? Rules are no longer important? My actions don’t have consequences?  Why don’t the parents sit their kids down and ask them what they learned from this situation?  Where are the lessons that our decisions not only affect us but our teammates as well?  What a great teaching opportunity is in danger of slipping away. If it does, kids will learn that rules aren’t really rules. That they don’t have to follow rules.  That even if I’m wrong, my parents will have my back. I’m invincible. The game is more important than my character.

I don’t have a dog in this fight.  I hope I would feel the same way if I did.  I think, based on what I’ve tried to teach my former players, that I would.  Looking over my former players I see stay-at-home mothers, nurses, businessmen and women, school teachers, pastors, coaches, accountants, missionaries, lawyers and one is even trying to eradicate hunger in Africa! Not patting myself on the back – they all had great parents.  I only hope I played a small part in their development.  I don’t know the SC or Hurricane players or their parents but I hope that one of them (or all of them) will realize there’s a teachable moment here and grab it.  I wish they would open the window so their kids can hear the baby birds.

Larry Ledbetter
Former coach – current SSAC Official


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