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2009 E-Lacrosse Feature: YouTube's game-ending takedown - controversial high school play may change the game

A play occurred on a high school field in western Pennsylvania last Wednesday, which will, in my opinion, change the game. It will, at least, start the discussion that will likely result in an important rule change throughout lacrosse, further empowering the referees with some much needed discretionary authority.

On May 14, North Allegheny and Pine-Richland faced off in a late-season game with no playoff consequences. North Allegheny was off to the postseason regardless of the outcome and Pine-Richland would not go further, even with the win. These two are big rivals in Western Pa. The game was close throughout. With just under one minute to go, North Allegheny was leading 7-6, but was assessed a spearing penalty.

The extra man worked the ball around and after a pushing call on North Allegheny, Pine-Richland called a timeout with 10 seconds left in the game. When play resumed, the Pine-Richland midfielder, No. 42, drove across the top of the restraining box by North Allegheny's No. 10. When No. 10 was beaten and a shot was imminent, he dropped his stick and tackled No. 42 from behind, twisting him around and to the ground about two feet from the referee.

You read that right, in fact, you can watch it yourself in this YouTube video posted this weekend. The controversial play is in the last part of the video, but the rest is good setup for the context of the event. And this is an event. I have spoken to a few referees, coaches and former players today that each have more experience than my 30 some years at it and none had heard of this occurring before. Certainly, none had ever heard of it as a strategy.

There were reports, early on, that the play by the defender may have been planned by a coach on the North Allegheny sideline. I spoke to the coaches and the athletic director and was assured that there was no intent on any coaches' part for the takedown to occur. We often hear simple, shouted commands from the huddle during heated games -- "Just stop the guy from shooting, whatever it takes." No. 10 misunderstood. He's a kid. He's seen the basketball and soccer versions of this type of play and he's pretty clever too.

But this is where the discussion of this particular kid ends, as far as I am concerned. The school and league have handled the incident, and the rules made the young man sit out a pretty big game. On top of that, the coach sat out the next game as a self-imposed penalty because he wants to take some of the burden off the kid, if you ask me. I coached three years at the high school level and must have said that same thing 100 times. I never once imagined this outcome and neither did this coach.

I never mention the names of the players here or the coaches because it's not important. The real story is below, the debate on the rules. Western Pa., North Allegheny and the whole state have come so far in lacrosse for anyone to pin this random act of youthful exuberance and misjudgment by one very young player, on a team or league or even the game of lacrosse.

But this video will be seen by every kid in lacrosse on the ultra-popular YouTube over the long summer of leagues, camps and tournaments with far less authoritative control than the NCAA and state high school leagues. The "strategy" employed last week could become popular with kids before those of us in lacrosse responsible enough to condemn the strategy can do so and stop it cold.

That's why we needed to hear from the North Allegheny coach. We needed his help. No one - not even the coach that benefited from the play (in the game score, at least) thinks this type of play is OK in lacrosse. There are no proponents of this "strategy" or move in the game and we need to get that message out to the kids. In fact, the North Allegheny coach said the same words to me that I and a few others I interviewed thought were central to the argument against the play. And that was, "It's just not lacrosse."

Kids will see this as a strategy, whether a coach called it or not. The player knew what he was doing on some level - saving the game, plain and simple. I am sure No. 10 is an underground hero in North Allegheny to the kids. Not so much in Pine-Richland. We see this type of play in basketball and we used to see it more, before they changed a rule. They also have foul shots in basketball where a remedy is provided. We see a similar play in soccer, where a player sacrifices a flagrant foul to save a sure goal. In soccer, however, there is a compensation for the victimized team that is substantial. A penalty kick is given and a goal is still quite possible, if not probable. At the end of a game of soccer, penalty time is awarded and played. That also prevents this type of last second "gamebreaker foul" -- I'll call it that because it has no name as of yet.

In football, we've seen similar plays in the past before they changed a rule. On the gridiron, a game may not end on a defensive penalty, so even if the time has expired, the fouled team gets a shot at a last play. Our kids in lacrosse have seen these plays in other sports so the idea is not foreign to them. It's just that before now, it's never succeeded publicly in a game for all to see.

In the game of box or indoor lacrosse, there are remedies for such penalties, like penalty shots awarded, even if a delay of game or too many men on the floor penalty cannot be served out in its entirety, which is two minutes. The Colorado Mammoth of the National Lacrosse League had such a situation a few weeks back. The Calgary Roughnecks put too many men on the floor with less than two minutes left on the clock, which seriously inhibited a legitimate Mammoth scoring chance at a critical time in an important game. The penalty was for two minutes, which was not servable so the Mammoth got a penalty shot.

Steve Govett, the general manager of the Mammoth and one of the guys helping the Western Lacrosse Association, the first minor league in the U.S., get off the ground, says the current rules in field just leave no room for a remedy that is fair. "Do you lose integrity when a kid can just reach out and blow someone's scoring chance and really change the game? Sure. I would support an outdoor rule."

I spoke to 35-year official Butch West about the greater ramifications of the play. He is one of the top refs in the game and has officiated at every level. While appalled by the play in Pennsylvania, as I was, Butch fully recognizes the gray area in the rules or in the game that give the referees no ability to right the wrong committed during any gamebreaker foul. He agreed that, if we cannot, through a rule or through public sentiment at the very least, stop this from becoming acceptable in any lacrosse setting, it sets a very dangerous precedent. But again, let's take the violence of this particular play out of the discussion. Because, here, in this instance, we both agreed that the fouled player was at considerable unnecessary and extraordinary risk of injury.

If you watch the play, you will see that the act, the execution of the strategy, is violent and unnecessary. West whipped out the rulebook, which is the only place a referee can get direction in such matters. I am sure a rulebook or two were pulled out as they sorted out the mess on the field in Pennsylvania that night. Rule 5, section 10, Butch found, allows a flagrant three-minute penalty at the discretion of the referee who determines the player to be taunting, jeering, "or any other act considered unsportsmanlike by the official ... misconduct is an expulsion foulů An expelled individual is barred from being in the competition area, including the spectator area". Butch didn't need to check. He knew an official cannot put any time back on the clock that passed before the foul occurred, in any case.

But to better discuss the issue of the gamebreaker foul, imagine that No. 10 just ran over to No. 42 and wrapped his arms around his chest and arms like a basketball player would. No one gets hurt and yet we still have a big problem. The problem is that even with the penalties assessed, and the player out for another game, Pine-Richland gets no recompense for their injury. They lose. The play worked! North Allegheny wins the game. And even worse than that, the strategy can be argued as a good one - a foolproof gamebreaker.

For you Baltimore readers I'll bring it on home. Let's say that in the MIAA championship, Team A was up by one with ten ticks left and some unstoppable Team B middie was driving on cage. Not that any MIAA defender would ever do it, but for the hypothetical, with just enough time to get off the shot, the defender just grabbed the shooter's shaft or committed any foul really, so long as it affected the opportunity to shoot in an illegal way. Team A would win no matter what the call, because the officials would have no ability to award Team B more time than was on the clock when the foul occurred. It wouldn't happen here in Baltimore, I think, but the hypothetical shows us that when no one tries to hurt anyone, the play still leaves a sour taste in our mouths.

We would never accept that in the MIAA, let alone the NCAA. Right? Wrong. That's what I am saying. If Gilman was to really do what I just made up, they would in fact win the game. If Syracuse did it to Duke in the NCAA final, the Orange would cut the nets (they invented it, remember) because the refs can do nothing about it. There is not an official on the field or in the box that could do anything about it. Winning a national championship by any means within the rules is acceptable, but we are saying that this particular method is not. Can we just trust that no teams will ever break this now unwritten rule we all might agree on. Ha! You can't leave that possibility and eventual probability of great scandal at our greatest lacrosse event in the hands of 18-22 year-old kids each and every year. The genie is out of the bottle and the play is now a ticking time-bomb that needs to be addressed by a rule, just like the Armadillo play was.

The Armadillo was a play carried out by Jack Emmer's Washington & Lee team in the 80s against the much stronger University of North Carolina. The strategy was for the player holding the ball to be surrounded by the other five offensive players who locked arms to create a protective cage for the ball carrier. Any attempt at checking that interior player would likely hit another player in the head and draw a foul. The group could move around the field slowly like a unit of meercats (see the Discovery Channel). There was no shot clock at the time, so they could waste a quarter with just one possession. They would break the human chain at some point, leaving an opening for a shot. UNC still won, but the play was made illegal in short order.

The same needs to occur here, for every variation of the Armadillo would have followed and our game would be a crazy mix of hockey and rugby now. I discussed with Butch what could be done. We both don't like the idea of employing a penalty shot like in hockey or women's lacrosse for the men's game. The best thing I could think of was a "gamebreaker foul rule," where any intentional or hard foul committed in the last 10 or 20 seconds of a game on the ball carrier would result in the assessing of the appropriate penalties and removal of players, but also put 30 seconds on the clock. It would be the first time in lacrosse that officials have ever been able to return time to a game that was already spent or add additional time to a game, however you interpret that. It wouldn't burden the official with deciding how much time to allot because that could be too subjective. Is it the time of the last whistle? Or is it when the move started before the foul. Who's looking at the clock while the play is moving? How would those types of determinations be made in non-TV games, like all high school games? A set time is the way.

When Hopkins beat Virginia in the 2005 semifinal, Virginia was up by one with just a few seconds left. Hopkins' Greg Peyser won the faceoff, passed down the field and Jake Byrne scored, sending the game into overtime where the Blue Jays won. Criticism abounded, Butch reminded me, as people questioned why the Virginia faceoff guy didn't just tangle up Peyser, so that no possession could have been had quickly by either man. It would have been illegal and a penalty, but time would have run out before a wing man could have gotten possession. Any call of a penalty would have given Hopkins the man up with no time left and Virginia wins. Virginia coach Dom Starsia did not call that play and the game is better off for it. But the criticism is still heard today in the NCAA tournament parking lots.

Referees are organized in groups that are a bit like German workers' guilds, where the group not only represents the officials when assigning games and other administrative support, but they ensure the quality of the officiating by training, evaluating and rating the officials. These groups are very into discussing the technical aspects of the referees' game management and calls. Some of these referees and some of the NCAA and high school officials are also in groups that decide rules changes and they are very technical about it. The game, in their discussions, is almost a science and that meticulous degree of detail is valuable to our game.

In those circles, this discussion will now begin and there are detractors to any allotment of extra time at the end of a game. What if the foul was unintentional and soft but still disrupted the last shot? Many of us think that the last play of the game is important, but you win a game on every play. So what happens if in the first quarter, a team makes a save, works the ball down field in a beautiful clearing effort, sets up the play, waits until there's 10 seconds on the quarter clock, executes perfectly and finds themselves right on the crease with a big goal imminent? A downed defender at the last minute swings the wood and takes the guy out at the knees.

Wouldn't that team deserve time back on the clock? How much time? Is it fair to give them only ten seconds, when they owned a minute and spent 50 seconds running down the clock on purpose? Isn't that their right and good lacrosse? With ten seconds put back on the clock and a defender right on the ball carrier standing still, the team with the ball is not fully compensated. There are many other issues and ideas to go around those tables and in this blog. We'd like to read your comments and opinions on the play, the strategy and the remedy to the problem if you see one.

May 21, 2008
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