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Editorial: An ugly affair during high school basketball game

Amherst Regional High School officials took swift action last week in firing an assistant basketball coach for directing a player to run into an opposing team’s coach during a game.

We commend the school for making clear such behavior will not be tolerated. Although the player has also received an unspecified punishment, which appears to be suspension, we believe assistant coach Eric Wheeler should shoulder the brunt of the responsibility for directing a student to commit a physical assault during a high school athletic competition.

Wheeler also served as coach of the junior varsity team and was stripped of that position, too. Mike Coblyn, another varsity assistant, has taken over the job.

While intentional fouls are part of the game in most sports, asking a student to attack a coach is reprehensible. Though the player, Tyrell Jackson, should have made the right decision and ignored the instruction, it is not surprising he did not. Players are expected to do what their coaches tell them in the heat of competition. And, caught up in the emotion of a tight game, it is easy to see why the high school junior obeyed Wheeler.

According to Amherst coaches and players, Jeff Guiel, the South Hadley coach who was struck, was violating the rules by continuously roaming out of the coaching box to guide his players on the court. Although venturing out of the box is considered a minor infraction that many coaches commit, if the Amherst side is correct, Guiel was wrong to do it and he, too, should take some responsibility for the nasty turn of events. He and Amherst head coach Jim Matuszko had an angry exchange in front of their players over the incident, which referees had to step in to defuse.

Wheeler has said that he was frustrated that officials did not penalize Guiel for his actions. Getting his player to knock Guiel back — and, as it turned out, onto the floor — was a way to draw attention to that. What made Wheeler think that misguided idea would work? There is a right way to get officials to take notice.

An investigation by Amherst Principal Mark Jackson and athletic director Rich Ferro determined that Matuszko did not know that Tyrell Jackson, a seldom-used player, was aiming to run into Guiel when he subbed him into the game shortly after Wheeler’s directive. Witnesses say the head coach had heard the plan but rejected it.

Matuszko said the incident has taught him that he needs to be more aware of what is happening on his sidelines and bench during a game. We agree. It would also be a good idea to go over the rules of good sportsmanship and respect with his coaches and players.

The fracas sparked a storm of angry posts by students on social media sites, some inappropriate, and school officials were sorting out how to address that. The incident was caught on tape. Tyrell Jackson admitted via Twitter that he intentionally ran into Guiel.

Guiel himself wasn’t saying much except that as a lawyer, he was “pondering all options to prevent this for other people, not just me.” That sounds like a possible lawsuit, not something that will be useful in moving on from this mess.

Students are urged to participate in athletics in part because sports are supposed to be a character-building experience. This ugly affair offered the opposite of that. A group of trusted adults let a squad of teenagers down with their embarrassing actions.

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