Skim the rulebook for any high school or college sport under the section of automatic ejections and the word “flagrant” is likely to appear.
For example, a player can be ejected for his or her first “flagrant” offense in high school volleyball. A “flagrant” act can send a player to the lockers in scholastic basketball and a “flagrant” foul is an automatic ejection in high school and college football.
But what exactly does “flagrant” mean and how can an official determine whether a coach or player’s behavior has fallen under that heading, thus necessitating an automatic ejection or penalty?
“In many cases, it says, ‘flagrant offenders shall be disqualified,’” said Steve Shaw, coordinator of football officials for the Southeastern Conference (SEC). “So you (do) have the judgment component about what is flagrant and what isn’t.
“In the dictionary, the word flagrant is something like ‘shockingly noticeable or evident, obvious or glaring.’ A personal foul by itself is a pretty bad act, but for it to be flagrant, that’s a pretty high standard,” Shaw said.
Call it an unsportsmanlike infraction, T, technical, hook or thumb, ejections are part of the game — an uncomfortable and sometimes ugly part perhaps, but still part of it. The consequences, however, are such in today’s sports world — whether it’s at the high school or college level — that athletes and coaches should think twice before receiving such a penalty.
Why? Administrators are hitting athletes and coaches where it hurts most — in game-time action. Many ejections now have a carryover effect that not only impacts the player or coach’s current contest but eligibility to participate in upcoming games, too.
So what are “automatic” ejections?
Here are a few examples: Football (NFHS) — Two unsportsmanlike fouls, fighting, contacting an official. (NCAA) — Two unsportsmanlike fouls, fighting, targeting/initiating contact with crown of helmet (subject to review by instant replay).
Basketball (NFHS) — Leaving the confines of the bench during a fight or when a fight may break out, two technical fouls or a flagrant foul that’s deemed to be of a violent or savage nature. (NCAA) — Two technical fouls, fighting or incurring the maximum number or combination of technical fouls.
“If a coach threw the ball up in the stands, I’d probably toss him,” said Patty Broderick, coordinator for the Women’s Basketball Officiating Consortium, which helps train and develop college officials for several conferences, including the Big Ten. “But if he threw it out on the court away from me, I’d probably T him up and say, ‘Coach, you know, the next time you do that, you’re going to have to call it a night.’”
Broderick said if a coach is jumping out of the area designated for a coach and getting on the floor, screaming and hollering and using foul language, that might be an automatic. Think Jim Boeheim, Syracuse men’s basketball coach, and the Orange’s game against Duke this past season when Boeheim went ballastic after an official’s call in Durham, N.C.
Other automatics include:
Baseball (NFHS) — Deliberately throwing a bat or helmet, initiating malicious contact on offense or defense or intentionally pitching close to a batter. (NCAA) — Use of profanity or vulgar insults at an umpire, use of histrionic gestures or refusal to stop arguing and further delaying the game after the head coach has had adequate opportunity to make a point.
“In many, if not just about all, of the other sports, there’s a staircase of progressive penalties,” said Mark Uyl, assistant director for the Michigan High School Athletic Association and a veteran college baseball umpire of nearly 20 years. “In wrestling, there’s a series of point deductions that eventually can lead to a disqualification. In basketball, it’s two technical fouls that cause an ejection. In soccer, it’s the yellow and red card systems.
“But in baseball, it’s pretty much you’re either in or you’re out. Granted, on the high school level, there are a few allowances for restricting coaches to the dugout, but I think what really draws a lot of attention to ejections in baseball is the fact that there really isn’t a whole lot of middle ground.
“It’s a balancing act because baseball and softball, to a certain degree, are really the only two sports that if the coach wants to come out and argue about something, they can pretty much stop the game. Whereas in other sports, the best way to get a football coach to move on is just snap the ball again, and in basketball, you get the ball back in play. So that certainly makes it challenging when everything can come to a screeching halt.”
Veteran softball umpire Christie Cornwell, who has officiated several women’s Division I College World Series, believes the way a coach addresses an umpire can determine whether an ejection is imminent.
“If a coach comes up to me privately during a game and says, ‘Man, you’re really have a bad day, huh?’ I might have a different tolerance than if they yell from the dugout and publicly humiliate or embarrass me,” she said.
The various levels of soccer have rules for automatic ejections, too. For instance, in high school, a player can be ejected for taunting — the use of word or act to incite or degrade an opposing player, coach, referee or other individual. In addition, an individual who commits a serious foul play, that is, any play in which the player commits one of the offenses punishable with a direct free kick (or penalty kick if the offense takes place by a defender in the penalty area) and uses disproportionate and unnecessary force against an opponent while playing the ball.
In high school volleyball, there is a progression of warnings before a player is ejected. There is a warning for the first minor offense, an unsporting penalty for the second minor or the first serious offense and a disqualification for the first flagrant, second serious or third minor offense.
In college volleyball, the penalty order is warning (yellow card), penalty (red card), expulsion (from set) and disqualification (from match). Those initial warnings include: minor unsporting behavior, repeatedly addressing officials about decisions, displaying frustration, attempts to influence calls and attempts to intimidate opponents.
Pat Gebhart, assistant executive director for the Pennsylvania Interscholastic Athletic Association, likes to use a parallel when he addresses coaches and administrators.
If a student acts up in class, it’s possible the guilty party could be sent to the office to face disciplinary action from the principal, particularly if the disruptive behavior is egregious enough.
Now transfer that same type of behavior to the baseball diamond, football field, soccer pitch or basketball court. What action will or can an official take?
“In Pennsylvania, we often use the phrase ‘educationally based athletics’ to describe our mission,” he said. “Much of that mission has to do with using the field of play as an extension of the classroom. When I have discussions about inappropriate behavior, I often ask whether a teacher would permit the described inappropriate behavior in the classroom and the answer is always — no.
“I respond by saying, ‘Then why should we permit this same inappropriate behavior on the field of play by a player, coach or fan that we would not permit in biology or English class?’”
Chances are, many officials don’t.
“I think what you’d find at the college and high school level is the number of overall ejections decreases each year because both of those governing bodies have added new suspension rules,” Uyl added.
“At the college level (in baseball), if you’re not the head coach and you get ejected, there’s now at least an automatic game tacked on to that ejection and at the high school level, virtually every state association has rules that if you’re ejected from a game, then you’re out at least the next day of competition. The rules have gotten more strict in dealing with sportsmanship and bad behavior, and really, if you want to affect behavior, especially with student-athletes, take away playing time and you will see behaviors change.”
Penalties have been tweaked to discourage bad behavior and, if the SEC is any indication, athletes are catching on.
“We’ve always thought of unsportsmanlike conduct as a flagrant act toward another player,” Shaw said. “There was a lot of ‘chicken fighting’ stuff after the play, unrelated to football. Usually, you’d see a receiver and a corner(back) out there mixing it up. We’d go in and say ‘OK, guys, break it up, it’s done.’ Or if you flagged it, it was offsetting. And if it was offsetting fouls, those two guys would be back at it the next play. The change last year was this: If it’s clearly after the ball is dead and not part of game action, it’s still a foul, but instead of a personal foul that’s offsetting, we have made it an unsportsmanlike conduct foul. Now you can say, ‘OK, number 40, that’s the first. If you do it again, you’re disqualified.’
“That’s a subtle change, but that’s where using disqualification and the impact of playing time to players gives the back judge or side judge a new weapon in their arsenal to help. I think that’s a good rule change and helps us manage unsportsmanlike behavior.”
If the coach/player/official relationship wasn’t on the radar screen of athletic administrators in years past, it is now. And if officials don’t call a T or give the hook for inappropriate behavior, those officials shouldn’t expect to receive better assignments or be promoted in their chapter.
“We want our officials to deal with it,” Broderick said. “When a coach gets a warning and then does something negative again, then they’re going to get a technical foul. And if they don’t, I’m watching the tape and reviewing the game, then (the official) is going to get it.
“However, I think there’s a little more enforcement of that (unsportsmanlike penalties or ejections),” she continued. “It’s been a major area of concern for several years, and I would have to say the last two or three years, it’s been pushed up to high priority by the NCAA.
“A second technical can be an ejection for a player or a coach, those are automatics, but there are other times you can be ejected without having that second technical.”
In NCAA softball, a distinction has been made this year between an administrative ejection and a behavioral ejection. An administrative ejection is a technical violation of a rule while a behavioral ejection is for making a mockery of the game, arguing balls and strikes, profanity, tossing equipment on the field or making physical contact with an umpire.
“It’s when the umpire issues a warning to clean up a rule or to fix a rule violation and the violation reoccurs,” Cornwell explained. “So the umpire has less discretion in that area. The rule was either violated or it wasn’t.”
One of the toughest calls for an umpire to make, according to Cornwell, is to determine whether a pitcher is intentionally throwing at a batter. In that case, Cornwell says the game situation dictates how an umpire might respond.
“It doesn’t happen often (an ejection for throwing at a batter), but we’ll look at the situation,” she said. “Has there been an escalation of trash talking, pushing, shoving and hard slides? After a home run, looking to see if the next batter gets dinged, so we look for signs.
“If there have been several pitches that have gotten away from the pitcher, we’re certainly going to give her the benefit of the doubt. But we have to err on the side of player safety. So if there’s any question, typically, the umpire is going to give a warning for that first one, and then if it continues, follow it up with an ejection.”
Cornwell, who had an ejection last spring for the first time in four seasons, says the behavioral ejection is different.
“I think I’ve had three or four in a 21-year umpiring career,” she said. “I’m a counselor by day so my approach on the field is to try and de-escalate the fuse rather than eject. I think different umpires have a different fuse length.
“My impressions are that ejections have declined over time because the NCAA and the softball committee and the conferences have gotten much better at saying, ‘Hey, we don’t want this kind of conduct to be part of our game. We just want to play the game, and we don’t want the coach-yelling-at-the-umpire show to be part of the game.’”
However, Cornwell does have empathy for college coaches.
“We have to understand as umpires that the coach’s career depends on the accuracy of every play,” she said.
“Given that, I think we as umpires need to understand that there are going to be outbursts and there are going to be verbal explosions and as long as it doesn’t cross a line, we need to expect that and be tolerant of that but also keep it contained.”
So what is that line, and how does an official know when a player or coach crosses it?
“I’m not saying you have to be a church mouse; I’m just saying it’s OK for a coach to say, ‘What the heck was that?’ or ‘What’s going on out there?’ or ‘I just don’t think that was a very good call,’” Broderick explained. “But if a coach says, ‘You’re a piece of this’ or ‘You’re a piece of that’ and personally attacks you, then guess what? We have to deal with that and we either have to warn it or give it a technical and stop it.
“When players see that kind of stuff, sometimes they emulate their coaches. But when a good coach loses control, you know what? Generally, when they get that one, they usually aren’t a problem after that. And that’s what it’s designed for.”
“Any use of profanity is an automatic in our state,” he said. “What we work hard at and try to get our umpires to understand is the difference between when it becomes personal. A coach can come out and say, ‘That’s an absolutely terrible call’ and as long as they’re not doing it in a way that personally demeans the umpire, we can probably continue that conversation. But when that same coach comes out and says ‘You’re an absolutely terrible official’ or ‘You’re an absolutely horrible umpire,’ it’s changed from talking about the play to now talking about the umpire personally. And when that happens, we tell our coaches flat out that they can expect to be ejected.”
Consistency is key, too, for officials. It shouldn’t matter whether it’s the first minute or final quarter, coaches want the contest called the same way throughout.
“You’ve let behavior go on all game, and then you’re going to T ‘em up with three minutes to go?” Broderick asked. “If you do that, there’s going to be consequences as far as what you do for us in the league.”
Gebhart says ejections on the high school level for the last three years in Pennsylvania have remained steady across the board for almost every sport. The key, he says, is preventive officiating. That’s true at all levels.
“Anything we can do to prevent a situation from escalating, that’s the key,” Gebhart explained. “If you sense something brewing, talk to the players or coaches, but we haven’t really seen an increase or a decrease (in ejections) either way.
“Those numbers have remained consistent … I think we would all say they’re probably too high, but we understand coaches and players are passionate about their sport, they practice hard at it and often when a call goes against you, you feel you need to make a comment or a gesture toward an official.
“Certainly we wouldn’t permit the kind of argument to occur in a Pennsylvania high school baseball game that might happen in the majors, but sometimes umpires early in their career might take more comments and conduct by coaches where a more seasoned umpire or official may not.”
Still, an official must show that he or she is in charge regardless of experience level. If they don’t, it’s likely they’ll hear the phrase that no official wants to hear: “They’ve lost control of the game.”
“Everybody else in the whole darn place can lose it, but the striped shirts can never, never lose it,” Broderick said. “They have to keep the lid on it because the teapot is going to go off. … You better stay in there and say, ‘Hey, easy’ and be a presence and a deterrent. If you’re not very good, you do not need to have a striped shirt on because that’s just human nature.”
So the big arguments between coaches and officials or players and officials might be a thing of the past, but that doesn’t mean they still don’t occur. They just don’t happen as often, and if they do, all parties know the consequences might be severe.
“I think without question the mentality has changed,” Uyl said. “The term we use a lot now in college baseball is that it’s a kinder, gentler era in which administrators at both the college and even at the high school level, I think, want umpires to handle themselves more professionally.
“I also think they want us to give coaches and participants as much rope as possible. Years ago, with the quick thumb or quick ejection, it was probably
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