Plainedge football coach Rob Shaver has taken a lot of heat this week after he became the first coach suspended under a three-year-old Nassau County sportsmanship rule intended to prevent teams from running up the score.
The Red Devils' 61-13 victory over South Side last Saturday was the fourth game in Nassau this season that was decided by more than 42 points. That's the magic number in the "lopsided scores policy" that forces coaches to have to explain in writing why their team won by so much. In the past, each time a coach's team eclipsed the mark, no suspension was handed down.
So why would Shaver receive the suspension when the other coaches did not?
First, let's be clear, running up the score in any sport is never a good thing, and it's something I've criticized coaches for in the past. But this is different.
If you're going to start punishing coaches for the final score of a game, there needs to be a consistent process that leaves no room for debate.
According to Pat Pizzarelli, the executive director of Section VIII, Nassau’s governing body of athletics, the rule has been effective for a few reasons.
“The rule was put in place to discourage coaches from running up the score and I believe it has worked,” Pizzarelli said. “It has also inspired coaches to clear the bench and play all of their players, so more are participating.”
The numbers support Pizzarelli's position. In 2016, when there was no rule in place, 18 games were decided by more than 40 points. The sportsmanship rule was adopted for the 2017 season and the number dropped to five games. The "lopsided score committee" ruled that none of those coaches warranted a suspension. In 2018, the magic number was raised to 42 points to make it a multiple of seven. Only one game topped the 42-point mark that year. Again, no suspension.
“The committee was convinced there was no intent to run up the score and the coach did what he could to avoid such a situation,” Pizzarelli said.
So what did Shaver do that the others did not? Shaver's suspension and the interpretation of the rule has sparked a passionate debate among football coaches and fans and has touched off a national discussion.
“We are applying middle school concepts to varsity sports,” said Ed Ramirez, the director of athletics at Baldwin. “We are implementing rules in an attempt to control a small group of people that didn’t do the right thing and in doing so we have negatively impacted the integrity of the game. The rule was well intended when it was instituted, but the outcome has brought more questions and other concerns.”
The spirit of this rule was to stop good teams from beating up on weaker opponents. This game was a battle of two unbeaten teams with first place on the line.
Shaver's team was facing its toughest foe of the season, a South Side squad that boasts one of the top players on Long Island in quarterback William Pickett.
It's not out of the realm of possibility that Pickett could rally his team in the fourth quarter and get the Cyclones back in the game.
If the enforcement of the rule seems arbitrary, you have to ask if this rule is even necessary.
“I’m completely against this rule,” Freeport coach Russ Cellan said. “I understand what the intent was, but the reality is that at times it has made a mockery of the game of football."
Shaver's starters exited the game early in the fourth quarter after his quarterback scored on a 37-yard run on the second play of the fourth quarter to make the score 55-13.
The rule does not state when the starters have to exit — it’s up to the coach — and any coach will tell you that it's a feel thing. Even the opposing coach said he had no problem with how Shaver coached his team.
“When Matt [McLees] and I spoke, I made it very clear that I had zero issues with how the game went,” South Side coach Phil Onesto said.
According to McLees, the Nassau football chairman, Shaver put himself in that position by not managing the game appropriately at the start of the fourth quarter.
“The bottom line is that when we have a lopsided score, we want to know how’d we get there, why did we get there, and what was done to prevent it,” McLees said. “When we see a starter scoring his fifth touchdown of the game in the fourth quarter to make the score 55-13, we have a hard time believing the appropriate measures were taken to prevent that.”
Shaver’s body of work all season had been to clear the bench, keep the score down and play by the rules. His starting units have played less than a half on two occasions in a 7-0 season for the top-ranked Red Devils. The starters played in only six plays in one game.
“Rob is a guy of integrity who does the right thing and teaches his players how to do things right,” Cellan said. “And this is how we treat him? Nassau County football got another black eye.”
Suffolk has no rule in effect to control the final score of games. Nor should they.
“It’s absolutely embarrassing to the football coaches and administrators in Nassau that they don’t trust the process and try to control the outcome of games,” said Hans Weiderkehr, the president of the Suffolk County Football Coaches Association. “They’ve taken the authority away from the athletic directors of the schools. That’s their job when a coach is unsportsmanlike – not some rule. They needed to create a committee to suspend a coach who is in good standing with everybody on Long Island? What a sham.”