From the Sidelines: The narcissism of small differences

Rarely is a game just a game.

When Ketchikan’s players and coaching staff packed up their gear and stormed out of the Thunderdome Sept. 2, ending their conference game against Thunder Mountain due to what they saw as dirty play and unfair officiating, I knew this wasn’t just about a game anymore. I threw away my statsheet immediately because the score hardly mattered; it was clear my coverage of the game would need to focus on Ketchikan Coach Jim Byron’s accusations.

I pride myself on not having a hometown bias, so I viewed the game tape several times. I strained my imagination to see if there was anything illegal or dirty happening that I didn’t catch live. After multiple viewings, I didn’t see anything dirty.

Stomping on somebody is dirty. Poking somebody in the eye is dirty. Hitting out of bounds, spearing, going low — all dirty. Nothing happened at the Thunderdome on Sept. 2 that even skirted these lines. On the play that sent two Kayhi players to the hospital, one was kneed in the head by a Kings player, causing a concussion. Another Kayhi player landed on a teammate, resulting in a back injury. The Falcons obviously did not plan to hurt either player nor did their play appear malicious. These were accidents.

Whether you agree with my reading of the game or not, continued accusations that TMHS is a dirty team need to be addressed. To accuse TMHS of playing dirty and to be unwilling to provide evidence from the film sends a terrible message to players. It teaches them to make excuses when they lose, and it will lead to a toxic environment at every contest between these football teams in the foreseeable future.

According to Thunder Mountain coach Randy Quinto, Kayhi has accused TMHS of dirty play before and likely will do it again. Leaving this as a he said, she said disagreement allows such accusations to snowball into community resentment. Our sports communities have been there before; let’s not go back.

The Alaska School Activities Association or a team of Kayhi and Thunder Mountain administrators needs to look at the game tape and conclude whether or not Byron’s accusations have anything behind them. If somebody in authority doesn’t issue an opinion on the tape, I fear things will only get worse every time these two teams play. After speaking with administrators and coaches, I am convinced everything will go smoothly Sept. 23 when Thunder Mountain heads to Ketchikan, but fans and family will still harbor resentment.

Right now Thunder Mountain players and fans feel Byron drug their name through the mud. Ketchikan’s players are suffering some loss or reputation for being perceived as quitters. Neither one of these things is true and those who espouse these ideas are only indulging in a narcissism of small differences: We’re two communities with almost everything in common; it’s safe to assume our football players aren’t assaulting anyone, and their football players aren’t coddled babies. Kayhi’s coach made a commendable call to end what he saw were unsafe conditions, he just made the heated and boneheaded decision to blame it on something other than being outplayed.

I understand Ketchikan athletic director Smith sticking by coach Byron. It’s commendably loyal, and if Byron hadn’t accused TMHS of foul play, I would agree with her position.

But Byron is levelling an accusation and refusing to back it up. If TMHS’ play was as unsafe and illegal as Byron is claiming, there should at least be some evidence on film. The fact that Kayhi officials might not even look at the film just tells me they’re unwilling to consider that they might be in the wrong. Thunder Mountain administrators looked at the film before coming down either way; Kayhi should do the same.

Byron can make a simple statement to clear the air. It doesn’t have to tarnish anyone’s reputation, and I think it would put any concerns to rest. Here’s what I suggest Byron say: “I don’t know if coach Quinto coaches his players to play dirty because I am not at their practices. I can’t say with certainty that they did anything intentionally to hurt our players. What I do know is our players were unsafe in that game, and I would make that call every single time.”

So far, the only people willing to weigh in on the game film are Thunder Mountain administrators, parents and coaches — whose opinions I trust but will necessarily be perceived as biased. If a coach has instructed his players to play dirty, that needs to be investigated by the ASAA or administrators from both teams.

Principals at Juneau-Douglas and Thunder Mountain have worked hard to steer this rivalry in a healthy direction, and they have done great work. There was a tremendous amount of respect between players on Juneau-Douglas’ state championship basketball team and Kayhi, who were likewise talented enough to win it all last season.

That’s the kind of thing I would like to see on the football field between these two teams. Thunder Mountain football spent several seasons getting beat badly. Now that they have earned some respect in the conference, a coach says they are playing dirty.

That’s not right, and simply ignoring this and hoping for the best is not a healthy option.

• Contact Sports and Outdoors reporter Kevin Gullufsen at 523-2228 or kevin.gullufsen@juneauempire.com.

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