- The Washington Times - Thursday, November 10, 2005

School officials in rural Virginia are trying to prevent fights under the Friday night lights by banning the traditional post-football game handshake.

“There have been some instances in the past where the handshaking has gotten a little bit out of control, with kids spitting on each other [and] kicking each other,” said Larry Shumaker, principal of Northumberland High School in Heathsville. “We’re just trying to prevent situations from occurring before they occur.”

The traditional demonstration of sportsmanship has the two squads forming single-file lines after games and extending hands to opponents for a shake or a slap with the occasional “good game” tossed in.

But principals of five Northern Neck District high schools — Essex, Lancaster, Northumberland, Rappahannock, and Washington and Lee — voted unanimously to ban the practice after district games in an effort to prevent problems they say are waiting to happen between the region’s bitter rivals.

“You got beat 56-0 and you want someone to tell you ‘Good game’ 35 times?” Rappahannock High School Principal Jack Cooley asked. “If you go through the line, there’s a possibility that somebody’s gonna push somebody, hit somebody, and it’s going to be a big problem at the end of the game.”

The principals dropped the custom at the beginning of the season and reaffirmed their decision at a meeting Monday. The ban applies to all sports teams in the district except for volleyball and wrestling squads, which are required by league rules to shake hands at the end of matches.

Some parents and fans have argued that the decision goes against the spirit of sportsmanship and the custom should be reinstated. Vincent Haynie, who has a freshman son at Northumberland, said the ban keeps high school athletes from being accountable for their actions.

“As long as we keep dumbing down what these students have to live up to, then our society will never get any better,” Mr. Haynie said. “They’re taking away the opportunity for these kids to step up. It’s ridiculous.”

Philip Shahan, who wrote a letter to a weekly newspaper, the Northumberland Echo, in protest of the ban, said prohibiting the handshakes forgoes the main point of high school athletics.

“None of these kids are pros, but they’re going to get jobs somewhere and run up against people who are unfair to them and to others,” Mr. Shahan said. “Scholastic athletics is about how to deal with life and adversity.”

Others have complained on message boards hosted by the Web site www.virginiapreps.rivals.com. One poster, Charger200510, called the ban “ludicrous,” while another said the ban is teaching students bad sportsmanship by prohibiting the handshakes.

Post-game handshakes are a fairly recent tradition, said Ken Blackley, an athletic director and baseball coach at Essex High School, which forbids the practice after all games. Only coaches used to offer the gesture at football games until about 12 years ago, he said.

Mr. Blackley, who has been a coach or administrator in the area for 38 years, said the ban began after several fights among football, basketball and soccer athletes occurred in the district last year. He said although coaches feel they are responsible for controlling their players’ actions, the ban is still needed to prevent potential incidents.

“Every coach feels like he can control his team, but as an administrator sitting on a time bomb with the handshakes, I like it,” Mr. Blackley said. “Every time they go to shake hands, I’m on pins and needles. I just go crazy because I know it’s going to happen.”

Northumberland coach Tony Booth said he has not seen a need for the ban among his players.

“From a political aspect, you do what you’re told,” Mr. Booth said. “I played in the Northern Neck district, and we always shook hands at the end of every contest. None of the teams I was involved with while a player or coach here has ever done anything [unsportsmanlike].”

Mr. Shumaker said the ruling has thus far served its purpose. In a football game between Rappahannock and Northumberland Nov. 4, he said three players were ejected and officials were on edge afterward.

“Had we lined up to shake hands … we would’ve had a major brawl,” Mr. Shumaker said.

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