Folks who read this blobber on a regular basis (and you both know who you are... thanks!) might be aware that I make my living covering some local high schools' athletic events as a photographer. There's no real money in what I do, (at least not how I'M doing it). But it does give me an excuse to attend a lot of games and play with cameras, two of my favorite things.
One thing I can tell you about working as a photographer in this part of middle Tennessee is that there are some incredibly talented football and basketball teams in the area, and they put a premium on winning. The coaches who are employed by local schools are well compensated for their jobs, and you had better believe they either win, or start looking for other lines of work. Some of them have been accused of having a "win at any cost" mentality, and that would probably be a fair assumption most of the time. But not ALL of the time.
Last weekend saw an ugly situation unlike any other in recent memory. It's such a bizarre thing, I might not even find words to adequately explain it to anyone unfamiliar with the story... but here goes...
A couple of the girls high school basketball teams in Rutherford County are nationally ranked, and for good reason. One team in particular, Blackman High School, has an awesome team this season. All five of their starters have committed to play basketball at division one colleges next year, and a couple of the kids coming off the bench will join those ranks in the years to come. The Lady Blaze are currently ranked 4th in the country, and no one really wants to play them, especially in a lose-and-you-go-home tournament situation. And that might explain why two teams who were playing for the right to face Blackman did their best to throw the game last week in the district tournament.
Here's why... The winner of the game would face Blackman in a semifinal elimination game, whereas the loser of the game would fall to a consolation bracket and have a chance to play in the district finals. Both teams playing in the finals would automatically advance to the state tournament, so losing to Blackman in the finals would be preferable to losing to Blackman in the semis. Got all that? Doesn't matter. What matters is that the coaches of these two quarterfinal teams looked at the upcoming schedule and realized that losing their game would probably give them the best chance to take their team to the state tournament. So they made sure their teams understood the implications of winning and losing- nudge nudge, wink wink- and sent them out on the court to do their worst.
And their worst is what they gave. Kids deliberately dribbled the ball over the half court line to get an "over and back" called against them, losing possession. Kids threw up bricks at the free throw line. They passed the ball to the wrong team. Threw the ball out of bounds. One girl even took a shot at the other team's goal. In short, it was a total embarrassment to both the fans and the state's basketball officials. The referees in the game noticed what was going on (videos are available showing some of the more blatant efforts to throw the game) and called both coaches to the center of the court for a warning. The coaches were playing substitute players who never got in regular season games, and it was obvious they weren't engaged in trying to win the game.
The TSSAA (the governing body of Tennessee's high school athletics) met after the game, reviewed the referees' reports, and then ruled both teams ineligible for the state tournament. The schools were notified that their girls programs were to be placed on probation for next season, and were encouraged to take additional action against the coaches involved.
Last night I took photos at a regional first round tournament game and had a chance to speak with several fans and coaches who witnessed the game in question. From their comments I came away feeling there was no doubt at all about what was going on: the two coaches had instructed their teams to lose, and in so doing they could avoid playing Blackman in the semifinals. Now both teams are out of the state tournament, and there is a movement afoot to have the coaches involved terminated from their jobs.
And that's where it gets personal for yours truly. One of the coaches was once my son's little league baseball coach, and he's since become a friend of mine. I know the guy, and the one thing I can tell you is he's about the most competitive coach on the planet. His little league teams were well coached, and they played very aggressive baseball. Some parents didn't like the guy's "win win win" attitude, but my son loved his coach, and they've stayed in touch over the years. This is the last guy on Earth I would have ever suspected of being involved in a plot to deliberately lose a high school basketball game. The last guy. He would storm out on the field to argue a call in little league baseball, for crying out loud. He hated to lose at ANYTHING.
So I have to wonder, what the hell happened? Did he see the other coach putting his subs out on the court in place of his starters? Did he notice the other team deliberately turning the ball over to his own team, and then realize his girls would have a better shot at the state tournament if they lost?
I hope to talk to him about it at some point. Right now all I can go by are his statements in the local press in which he expresses great regret, saying he got caught up in the "heat of the game" and would never do such a thing if he had it to do over.
But whether he has a chance to "do it again" is now in doubt. His reputation as a coach is sullied, as are the reputations of the two fine basketball programs involved.
How do you punish teams and coaches for trying to lose a game? Obviously, the players went along with the game plan, so they aren't completely blameless. We do tell our kids to follow their coach's instructions, but at what point are they responsible for their own actions? Does this constitute unsportsmanlike conduct by coaches and players?
One of my friends argues that she sees no difference in this and in strategic moves that are made in other sports and other games. Her example was giving up one's queen in chess in order to win the game later. My response was that to deliberately lose one's queen in order to win was the polar opposite of losing the game to avoid facing the queen. Bad analogy. Another guy suggested that pro football teams often tank late in the season in order to get a better draft pick or a more favorable schedule the following season.
But do they deliberately, blatantly try to lose games? If they were caught doing so, what would the league do in response?
Like I said, it was ugly. And it's likely to get uglier.