March 6, 2010

Officiate This: Doing Right by Student Athletes

For a moment yesterday during the SEC tournament in the Tennessee Ole Miss game, officials pondered how to handle a situation between Kelly Cain and Nikki Byrd after the two players were entangled and Byrd's arm swung. Officials immediately began to watch replays.

The commentators mentioned the situation with Brittany Griner of Baylor - the punch heard 'round the world the other night when the freshman hit Jordan Barncastle, breaking her nose.

In hushed tones, the commentators in the Tennessee-Ole Miss game wondered if Byrd would be ejected and given a one game suspension for her arm movement. (Moments earlier in the game, Byrd pushed Glory Johnson and received a foul) . Officials decided to call double fouls after watching replays, discussing the situation and meeting with the coaches.

In a sport that's become increasingly physical, where should officials draw the line when a player makes a movement that isn't inadvertent after a scuffle? It's understandable, by the way, that officials don't want to attribute intention to any movement by a player during a scuffle when it's unclear since it affects a player's reputation. But the pushing, shoving - and more- has been increasingly obvious this season.

In a game weeks ago, Alicia Manning of Tennessee had her face scratched by a player from LSU with long nails. The scratches are still visible although inflicted weeks ago and surround her eyes, which thankfully weren't injured. One reader raised the question whether the player had artificial nails. Certainly the incident raises safety concerns.

Addressing these issues isn't easy. Setting up rules and bright lines doesn't always solve situations.

As Griner's coach, Kim Mulkey, pointed out in a NY Times piece, freshman Griner has been a target during the season. However, this is also true of many other players who have not responded this way.

Mulkey acknowledged there are bigger issues at stake.

"What she did was horrible. It’s part of our society. We are hit with things as coaches that we have to deal with. It’s our job to lead, guide and direct them and not worry about a basketball game. We’re going to the N.C.A.A. tournament, so it’s not about basketball. It’s about doing your homework as a head coach and doing right by that young person. Because when she leaves me in four or five years, it’s her job to go survive in the real world.”

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