by Stan BungerBy Stan Bunger

COMMENTARY

My first reaction when I read that Contra Costa County authorities have filed felony assault charges against an Acalanes High School, Lafayette junior varsity water polo player for something that happened during a game was, “It’s either April Fool’s Day or I’m reading The Onion.”

Sadly, neither is true. As the San Francisco Chronicle reported Wednesday, the story is sadly real.

This is another of those “caught on video” stories. According to the Chronicle, somebody focused on two kids playing in “the hole,” the battleground of water polo.

I can say this as the father of a daughter who played high school water polo: this sport is not for the faint of heart, and you really don’t want to know what goes on below the water. A water polo game is punctuated by whistles signaling foul after foul.

In this case, it was a knee to the nose. Result: a broken nose, no foul called by the referee, and a call to the police.

The video hasn’t been made public, so we’re left in the dark as to what the camera saw. But do we really need to review the footage to know that this is crazy?

Look, I grew up around youth and high school sports. Both my grandfather and father were high school coaches, I played a variety of sports (poorly but with gusto), and both my kids played through high school into college. I’ve seen elegant play, clumsy play, and dirty play. I’ve seen fights and taunts and yes, some ugly injuries caused by borderline (or worse) play.

But I’ve never seen a situation where calling the cops and dragging a kid into criminal court seemed remotely like the right thing to do. Am I condoning dirty play? Absolutely not. But we have plenty of ways of handling this that don’t turn a molehill into a mountain.

No doubt the injured player, his teammates, parents and coaches were outraged. That’s OK. They had plenty of options. The coach could have pulled his team out of the pool and accepted a forfeit loss (I’ve seen that happen in a very similar situation). There are leagues and governing bodies and school boards that handle high school sports. All could have been asked to pursue justice.

Instead, our criminal justice system gets involved. Time and resources that could be spent dealing with actual criminal behavior are diverted to this.

Every athlete knows (or should know) that when he or she enters the arena, the rules of the sport apply. Sure, there are very rare occurrences where the rule of law needs to be invoked (hockey stick muggings come to mind). The refs don’t catch everything in real time, but I find it impossible to believe that this incident would have been ignored if it had been run through the proper channels.

It’s time to blow the whistle on this play.

 

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