Playing it safe
October 26, 2011 - Young athletes need to learn to play on the road. This means learning to deal with the home team's fans – students and adults, alike – cheering against them. Sometimes, they even face seemingly biased referees.
The bottom line, as any coach worth his or her salt will tell them, is that they need to learn to focus and play through such distractions.
But, our athletes should never have to play in a truly hostile environment, where they and their families fear for their safety.
Unfortunately, that is what has materialized for Lake Orion's middle school basketball teams and other schools that play at Pontiac Junior High.
Last week, my eighth grade daughter's team played at Pontiac's gym. From playing there last year, we knew the girls would have to deal with, let's just say, the home team's advantage.
From the opening tipoff the referees lost control of the overly physical and testy game. Unfortunately, the contest was marred with plenty of rough play.
Our coach, featuring one of the most friendly demeanors I have ever met for someone in this positon, received a technical foul for sticking up for her girls.
No matter where a game is played, obvious hair pulling, over-the-back muggings and kicks to players in the chest while they are lying on the floor are not part of basketball. Why the refs in Pontiac let this go on is beyond me, given the fact that this is not tolerated in high school. The fact that one of the refs refused to sign the official score sheet after the game last Monday was very telling.
In the end, Pontiac scored seven more points and won the game. That is not what bothered me the most, however.
According to several parents, the physical nature of the game led to rising tensions in the gym, to the point that the home crowd grew hostile. Recognizing what was brewing, the Pontiac security team cleared out a portion of the home team's crowd in the middle of the game to try and alleviate the situation.
When the game was over, local henchmen surrounded the refs. One of our parents tried to say something to a ref and he screamed at her to "get out of my face."
The only way to leave the school is through the front entrance. The security team was so concerned with the situation they cleared out the remaining home-team fans from outside the doors, so the visiting players and families could leave the building safely. (How would the home crowd have acted if its team had lost or one of our girls retaliated when they got kicked?)
The security folks also followed our players and their parents to their cars. One of the girls was closely followed by a few vehicles driven by the home team's fans to the Palace on Lapeer Road, before they turned around. The parent made her daughter duck in the back seat, so she would not be recognized.
Pontiac's "event coordinator" had the audacity to contact our district's athletic director immediately after the contest to complain about our coach and parents. He needs to take a close look in the mirror. When multiple visiting schools complain about the same hostile environment, it is time something be done. (There are rumblings that at least one group of parents from another school are petitioning that their teams stop playing Pontiac, altogether.)
Listen, we are all proud of our teams, but such behavior is unacceptable. Coaches, teachers and administrators there need to make changes fast. The boys' middle school basketball season is starting soon and I bet the crowds will be even larger and just as hostile.
The fact is Pontiac Junior High needs us more than we need them. There are plenty of middle schools that we can play in its place for a game or two. Quite frankly, I am not sure why we do not compete against middle schools in Rochester.
Nobody says the home crowd needs to make visiting teams overly comfortable. We surely do not do that when Clarkston and Oxford visit. But everyone should feel safe.
That is not the case in all gyms around here.