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Bonus Editorial

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A Funeral For Sportsmanship

By Randy Bertin

In February, as I sat watching the sports news, I was stunned by the first headline I saw. It stated, “Murry Bergtraum star Epiphanny Prince Scores 113 points in a high school basketball game today, setting a new high school single game scoring record.” Wow! That is a pretty amazing feat—almost four points for every minute of the game. As the announcer talked about the new record, all the attention focused on how wonderful it was. What a great accomplishment.

My thoughts were just the opposite. Society was celebrating 113 points scored by a high school athlete in a single game with a final score of 137-32. It became clear to me: Sportsmanship was finally dead in high school and youth athletics, and this moment was its final blow.

Sportsmanship in youth sports has suffered many injuries, particularly from fans and parents. A clear example of this is an incident last year when a varsity softball coach in Connecticut was beaten by a parent carrying an aluminum bat because his daughter was benched for missing the previous game. We have seen it in ice hockey too, as parents are fighting each other, coaches, and officials.

What makes last week’s 113-point posting particularly disturbing is that in this case, poor sportsmanship was displayed by a coach, a prominent coach at that. Ed Grezinsky, the coach of the girls’ team at Murry Bergtraum High School, Prince’s school, is arguably one of the most successful high school girls’ basketball coaches in history. How could this wonderful and experienced coach do this to a team of high school girls? How could he leave Prince in the game and allow her to humiliate the other team? The answer is easy: Our high school athletic culture today is not focused on the purpose of our programs, but rather on winning and prestige at all costs.

When thinking about this mess I wondered, “Why do we have high school sports?” What are its founding principles? I, of course, knew the general answer but went to the New York State Public High School Athletic Association Web site to get key reasons. They are listed as:

· Encourage as many pupils as possible to participate in athletic games.

· Promote sportsmanlike conduct in all athletic contests.

· Maintain essential minimum standards of eligibility.

· Provide means to settle disputed athletic contests amicably and authoritatively.

· Conduct appropriate athletic meets and tournaments.

· Cooperate with the State Education Department in fostering educationally sound athletic programs.

· Adapt rules governing sports contests to the particular conditions governing high school competition.

· Continually seek data to support rule changes leading to greater safety for high school athletes.

When looking at the above principles it seems as though Mr. Grezinsky was in violation of three of the above points. First, “To promote sportsmanlike conduct in all athletic contests.” Okay, now think about it. You are playing against Epiphanny Prince for Louis Brandeis High School, you have already played Murry Bergtraum once this season, on Dec. 12, and lost 115-22 and you just lost today by 105 points (gulp!) and one player on the other team scored 77 percent of the points, yet she obviously was not taken out of the game. Really, there was no reason to leave Prince in the game—clearly she wasn’t being challenged. One could even argue that she shouldn’t have even played in this game!

According to nydailynews.com, “By halftime, she had 59 points, [the score was 74-11], topping her previous complete-game career high of 51. She scored only one point from the free throw line and hit just four three-pointers as she knifed through the defense at will to score layup after layup.” Why let her do that? All it is doing is humiliating the other team and discouraging their efforts. Can you imagine watching this game?

The Daily News Web site also quoted Prince’s AAU coach, Apache Paschall, who said he’s used to seeing Prince score in bunches but admitted that even he was surprised by the explosion. "In the first half all I was thinking about was her catching Kobe," Paschall said. "But when she wasn't missing any shots in the second half, it just got ridiculous." Yes Mr. Paschall, you have zeroed in on the heart of the issue – this is completely ridiculous.

Second, “to conduct appropriate athletic meets and tournaments.” This contest was hardly appropriate.

Third, Mr. Grezinsky was definitely not encouraging as many pupils as possible to participate in the game. I know, varsity sports are governed as a meritocracy, if you will—you need to earn your spot on the team and your playing time, too. I absolutely agree with this. But can you imagine being a sub for Murry Bergtraum? You sit on the bench during a time when you can get playing time and improve your game so that this star on your team can score at will, only accomplishing a record that should never be! All this record shows is the selfish side of athletics and a coach who cannot control his players. As the old adage goes, “Athletics does not build character. It reflects it.” I challenge you to see what we all saw occur in this game.

An article written on midsouthhoops.net declared Epiphanny Prince as “undisputed,” arguing that she is the number one player in the country. I agree with that, but a 113-point massacre was not needed to prove it. If asked a week ago, most people who follow the PSAL would argue that Prince was the best high school player in the country. The article also compared the performance to Kobe Bryant. This is a huge problem, as their should be no comparison between a professional athlete and a high school athlete. Professional athletes are being paid to play against other players who are being paid. The definition of sportsmanship is slightly different for coaches and players at that level. Lots of money is involved and record-setting days are good for the game as well as for revenue. It is the entertainment business, and players who are being paid need to be doing what they are paid to do. Prince is a high school athlete, who has the privilege of playing for her school. She is able to do this because her grades are acceptable, and she meets eligibility requirements. What she is participating in was created as an educational medium to teach important lessons about life, while encouraging participation. She shares nothing in common with Kobe Bryant, except that they both play basketball.

The coach for Louis Brandeis High School, the team on the receiving end of the record, is a 32-year coaching veteran with several championships under her own belt. I decided to try and speak with her to see what she thought of the game. Coach Vera Springer at first was reluctant to speak. She’d been called by the media a lot and replied that she was not speaking about the game at that point. But she did offer a few comments to a fellow athletic director who wanted her thoughts.

Coach Spring called Prince’s scoring run of 113 points “a planned publicity stunt. It was obvious to all of our girls that the other team was yelling, ‘get Epiphanny the ball!' All players involved knew it was planned.”

Springer went on: “These are not professionals who are being paid. These are kids, and I am disappointed at how the media are treating my team.

“Epiphanny didn’t earn this,” Springer added. “We let her do it, as after a while it was obvious what was happening. I was proud of my kids and how they handled themselves. We were good losers.” Springer has also received calls of support from across the country and added, “I have been getting calls from as far away as Texas, and all have been of support.”

Springer also commented about her opposition. “You could tell some kids on the other team were not happy with what was happening. How could a coach do that to their own team?”

So, how do we make sure that coaches under our leadership never do what Grezinsky did? The first is to include this conversation in coaches meetings and orientations. Every year at Stoneleigh-Burnham we have a mandatory coach’s orientation which covers all policies of the department, including sportsmanship and what it means. I am very specific as to how I would like our team and school to be seen by fans, officials and most importantly by our opponents. Being proactive is always easier than having to deal with a situation while it is occurring.

If this happens, however, it is important to not act on emotion. Imagine being Julia Taylor, the Athletic Director at Murry Bergtraum, and watching this game. What do you do? Do you intervene? Do nothing? Have a conversation afterward? The answer here is not so cut and dry, as one can never predict how a coach will react if approached during a game. Had it been me, I probably would have approached Grezinsky at the half. At that time, Prince had 59 points and the game was wrapped up. If I were the director of athletics at Louis Brandeis, I probably would’ve still approached Grezinsky at the half.

If anything positive can be seen from this, it is that an important lesson can be learned by everyone involved. For Louis Brandeis, it is how other teams feel when they are pummeled, and to never humiliate a team in this way. For Murry Bergtraum, it is the job of the athletic director to teach this lesson to both the coach and the players—perhaps Grezinsky should be suspended.

As an athletic director it is not only our job but our challenge to not give in to today’s sports culture, which focuses on personal glory and victories at all costs, but instead stay focused on the purpose behind the creation of our programs. Having the experience of playing on a varsity sport is something that athletes at our schools will probably always remember. It is the podium from which we can teach about success, failure, and the many lessons that go with each. So what did the 137-32 final score last week teach? It taught us that sportsmanship in high school athletics is truly dead. I hope this passing does not go unnoticed as one more piece of nostalgia in high school athletics, but rather as a tragedy which re-centers our thoughts on what is truly important in the educational experience of our athletes today.

Randy Bertin is the Director of Athletics at Stoneleigh-Burnham School, an independent boarding and day school for girls grades 6-12, in Greenfield, Mass. He can be reached at rbertin@sbschool.org



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