Written by Matt Wixon
Wixon: Kentucky high school postgame handshake ruling stuns area coaches - 'If you can’t shake hands and move on, you’ve got a problem'
When Woodrow Wilson football coach Bobby Estes heard teams in Kentucky were being encouraged to forgo postgame handshakes, he chuckled. But not because he thought it was funny.
“I think that kind of goes against everything we’re trying to teach,” said Estes, who has coached Woodrow Wilson since 1998. “After a ballgame, if you can’t shake hands and move on, you’ve got a problem.”
A lot of athletes in Kentucky have had that problem. Citing more than two dozen incidents of fighting in the last three years, the Kentucky High School Athletic Association issued a directive last week that teams “not participate in organized postgame handshake lines/ceremonies.”
The KHSAA later clarified that it was not a ban on handshakes but a reminder that if schools can’t properly supervise the postgame tradition, they should skip it. Even after the clarification, it was a fairly shocking message. Isn’t the postgame handshake line a basic element of sportsmanship?
“We should be teaching about more than football. We should be teaching life skills,” said North Mesquite coach Mike Robinson, now in his 13th season as a head coach. “We tell the kids that the things you’re going to do are not always going to be successful. You have to take the good with the bad.”
And then respond to it in a civilized way, whether it’s in a handshake line or during a game. When that doesn’t happen, the result can be ugly.
In 2009, the football matchup of Kimball and A. Maceo Smith was declared a double forfeit when players began fighting in the third quarter. In 2010, a scuffle at a DeSoto and Mesquite Horn game led to suspensions. And in 2011, a hockey game between Keller and Arlington Martin included two cheap-shot blindside hits in the span of five seconds and a player suffering a broken jaw.
It was even worse in Baytown two years ago, when Beaumont Ozen and La Marque met in the football playoffs. Police officers used pepper spray to break up a melee after a fight erupted in the handshake line.
When the adrenaline is still pumping moments after a game, a handshake line can be a tempestuous situation. That was obvious in 1997, when school principals in a South Texas Class 5A district of the University Interscholastic League voted to end postgame handshakes. The ban was lifted after a few months.
Estes and Robinson said they’ve held a player out of a handshake line when it appears he could be antagonistic. But the postgame handshakes are important, they agreed.
“We talk to kids that they can react in a positive way or a negative way,” Robinson said. “The more you can teach a kid how to react, the more successful in life he’s going to be.”
The fights get a lot of attention, but fortunately, there are many more times when players do more than just shake hands after a game. They might chat briefly, and sometimes members of both teams meet for a player-led prayer.
We often hear the line that “sports do not build character, they reveal it.” If players can’t be trusted to shake hands after a game, what does that reveal about sports?
“You’ve got to set the expectation that if you can’t behave yourself, then you can’t play,” Estes said. “There are times when you have to reteach that, but we are not going to get away from teaching the fundamentals of sportsmanship.”
A simple postgame handshake is one of those fundamentals.
Follow Matt Wixon on Twitter @mattwixon.