May 22, 2018
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Unwritten rules don’t help anyone

By Ernie Clark, BDN Staff

It’s a rite of football spectatorship to complain about penalties called or not called — everyone has the perfect angle, after all, to see what the official missed through the perspective of one team’s best interest.

And while I have a closet full of striped shirts and whistles from a previous experience as an official, it doesn’t blind me to the notion that calls occasionally are missed.

That’s part of sporting life.

What’s even more open to interpretation are those “unwritten rules” applied on an as-needed basis largely to blame someone else for a team’s shortcomings.

I think back to earlier this season, when an assistant coach from one team yelled across the field at the opposition because its third-string quarterback completed a pass late in a one-sided contest.

Or there are the frequent mini-controversies involving when the winning team should pull its starters from a lopsided game, or whether the onus is on the losing team to act first.

I can do without all those unwritten rules, and leave it to common sense to be the guiding principle in these cases. Certainly common sense is applied inconsistently everywhere you look, but what’s the difference when the logic of the unwritten rules are just as much in the eye of the beholder.

Unwritten rules generally penalize the team that is better prepared, better equipped and just plain better. Should subs from the winning team be penalized because their starters are better than the opponent’s, and be left to run the most basic plays so as to not hurt anyone feelings? Should those backups not be able to show off their skills, or at least capitalize on their varsity opportunities in preparation for the day when they become the stars?

Being as diverse as it is with established powers, fledgling varsity programs and schools struggling with declining enrollments, the Maine high school football world is going to be rife with blowouts. We’d all like NFL-like parity, but it’s not going to happen anytime soon.

One of the challenges facing the football community these days is to create as level a playing field as possible as it considers increasing the number of classes statewide from three to four, but all they really can do is strive to provide equal opportunities.

It’s largely up to individual programs to rise to the competitive level of their peers. No unwritten rule is going to change that.

And there are plenty of examples of schools that have achieved that upward mobility. Take Old Town, which entered this season having won just four of its previous 66 games. The Coyotes are 4-2 this year, including one win over a team that scored 85 points against them just a year ago.

You know what they say about payback.

Old Town’s not the only example. John Bapst of Bangor and Mount Desert Island of Bar Harbor were programs in dire straits a decade ago, but Bapst won a state title in 2008, the same year MDI advanced to the Eastern Maine Class B final.

As for pulling starters, coaches must weigh such factors as making sure they get enough playing time in preparation for the tougher tests to come against the risk of a star being injured in a blowout situation. It’s a choice not always as simple as the scoreboard suggests.

If you want more written control over these situations, follow the lead of baseball with its 10-run rule. Perhaps a running clock after the margin reaches a certain point will suffice.

But this unwritten stuff is little more than a crutch, and those who use it generally come across as whiners.

Have feedback? Want to know more? Send us ideas for follow-up stories.

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