NCAA Continues Sportsmanship Crackdown

By Staff

Coaching Management, 14.9, October 2006, http://www.momentummedia.com/articles/cm/cm1409/bbncaacrackdown.htm

A year after the NCAA implemented tougher language and penalties to combat trends toward poor sportsmanship, the number of conduct-related incidents reported by umpires across Divisions I, II, and III reveals that more work still needs to be done. The number of ejections rose from 50 in 2005 to 151 in 2006, according to Christi Wade, Chair of the NCAA Softball Rules Committee and Head Coach at St. Leo University.

Reasons for the ejections ranged from arguing calls with umpires to a few cases involving contact with those calling the game. And the overwhelming majority of those ejected were coaches, says Wade.

“We were targeting everyone with the emphasis, but in the past we had a lot of coaches making disparaging remarks to umpires and we really wanted to clean that up,” says Wade. “The problem wasn’t student-athletes per se, but there is a sense that kids will follow what their coaches do, so we wanted to make the language all-inclusive.

“I don’t know if the coaches’ behavior was that much worse in 2006,” Wade adds. “I just think the umpires weren’t putting up with as much as they had in previous years—and rightfully so. In 2006, if a coach started arguing, the umpire was more apt to say, ‘That’s enough, I’m not taking any more.’ The emphasis gave them added leverage to stand up for themselves.”

For 2006, the rules committee clarified language allowing umpires to immediately eject coaches and athletes for unsportsmanlike behavior, eliminating the previously required verbal warning. The committee also defined penalties for making contact with or spitting on an umpire—a reaction to a spitting incident that took place in 2005. (There were no such incidents in 2006.)

Now, an ejection and a two-game suspension are assessed in those instances. The rule and language changes mark a larger cultural shift aimed toward improving behavior at the collegiate level.

For Jeff Aumend, Head Coach at Charleston Southern University, whose team won the Big South Conference 2006 Sportsmanship Award, the changes couldn’t have come soon enough. “In our sport, arguing is fairly well-accepted, but I see umpires tolerating less when it comes to discussions about balls and strikes,” he says. “A coach who approaches an umpire with patience and in a peaceful manner is more likely to get his or her point across than someone who runs onto the field with their emotions getting the best of them. And with the new rules, flying off the handle with an umpire can cost you your seat in the dugout.”

Though they are quick to applaud the new emphasis on sportsmanship, Aumend and Wade say effects from the measures probably won’t be fully felt for a few more years. “It’s going to take some time for this to permeate the NCAA student-athlete and coaching culture, but it’s definitely a step in the right direction,” says Aumend. “People get frustrated because the NCAA seems to regulate everything, but in this instance I think it’s a positive effort to rein in the negative impact of poor sportsmanship.”

“I think we’ll still see more ejections in 2007 than we did in 2005, but I don’t think there will be quite as many as in 2006,” says Wade. “We have to remain consistent with our message. Once that consistency is recognized, the number of ejections will eventually drop off.

“We established the emphasis because we didn’t want our umpires to be at a disadvantage,” continues Wade. “But we also wanted to make sure our sport keeps building on our recent successes and increased TV exposure while maintaining an emphasis on sportsmanship and fair play.”

Those successes include more than 1.2 million viewers who tuned in for the Division I Women’s College World Series coverage on ESPN, and over 815,000 who watched the games on ESPN2. This followed a 23 percent ratings increase during the regular season.

In other news, the NCAA Division I Softball Committee is recommending a new regular season maximum-contest limit. Concerned that some teams were playing 70 or more contests in a season, the committee proposed setting a limit of 56 regular season games, replacing the current rule of 56 competition dates with no specified total number of games.

Committee members believe the new limit would temper some of the competitive inequities facing cold-weather schools by not forcing them to travel to warm-weather areas in order to play games early in the season to keep up with their sun-soaked counterparts in the south. Doing so would reduce missed class time for student-athletes by limiting mid-week travel, says the committee.

Reducing the number of games could also result in a fairer selection process for the NCAA Tournament. “We evaluate a lot of criteria during selections,” rules committee Chair Marianne Vydra, Associate Athletics Director and Senior Woman Administrator at Oregon State University told The NCAA News. “It is apparent that we had a lot of questions when it comes to looking at Rating Percentage Index that weighs heavily on wins and losses. When you have some teams playing 50 games and other teams playing close to 80, that’s a big difference. We support the new model because it is a way to level the playing field.”

The proposal, which has the support of the National Fastpitch Coaches Association, requires approval from the Division I Championships/Competition Committee before it can be implemented. If approved, the proposal could be in place for the 2007-08 season. Before it can be implemented, the proposal requires approval from the Division I Championships/Competition Committee, which next meets in September 2006.

For more information on NCAA rules for 2006-07, go to: www.ncaa.org, click on “Sports & Championships,” “Spring Sports,” “Softball,” and “Softball Rules and Interpretations.”