Road Trip Dad – City of Brotherly Love?
Dan Witmer |January 15, 2019
Um, Philadelphia, we have a problem.

In case you haven’t heard, we’ve got a fresh case of ignorance and insensitivity, racism and cultural disrespect in our lacrosse world. And this time, it originates from the world of “professionals,” not naïve children or biased fanatics.

On Saturday night, the NLL’s defending champions, the 3-0 Georgia Swarm, played in Philadelphia, home of the re-born Wings, returning to the City of Brotherly Love and the NLL this season. The Wings were 0-3 coming into the game, and their roster features some familiar names – Blaze Riorden, Matt Rambo, Chris Cloutier, Kevin Crowley, Adam Osika, and Trevor Baptiste.

I was in Philly for the weekend for US Lacrosse’s 2019 “LaxCon,” the national convention for everything lacrosse. My son Eric flew out from Denver and when he saw the NLL match-up was in town, he bought us tickets as my birthday present. Eric’s a big NLL fan and a Colorado Mammoth season ticket-holder for the past few years.

As we took the train down to the Wells Fargo Arena on Saturday evening, I realized I hadn’t been to a pro-anything game in years. I’ve never been to an NFL or NBA contest, and my last MLB game was in the ‘70s (coincidentally, a Phillies game in ’75!). Since 2001, the only NHL games (two, maybe three?) I’ve seen have been in Tampa. I’ve been to a few AHL games, lots of NCAA lacrosse playoff and championship games, but no pro contests.

So imagine my shock when I heard the PA announcer yell to the crowd, “Let’s snip the ponytail!” as Lyle Thompson carried the ball downfield.

Yup, that’s what he said – and he said it more than once.

Before we go any further, let me say right here that I do not have anything against the City of Philadelphia (but its famous nickname did help make my title irresistible). I love the Reading Terminal Market, the Marriott, the Convention Center, City Hall, the Art Museum, The Irish Pub, and everything Rocky. I didn’t necessarily cheer for the Flyers back in the ‘70s when they won two Stanley Cups, but I could name every player – and today they are Eric’s favorite NHL team. Heck, I even wanted the Eagles to win on Sunday.

Before 8 AM on Sunday, I saw that there were Facebook and Instagram exchanges. The announcer, Shawny Hill, quickly issued an apology, as did the Philadelphia Wings organization. The NLL stated that it would take action.

There have been (many) times in the past few years when I thought that maybe we as a society have become too sensitive to comments, jokes, etc. Kevin Hart can’t host the Academy Awards; “Let it snow” is offensive, and so on…

But this, in my opinion, is so much more.

Shawny Hill claimed it was his own ignorance, but that’s not enough for me. Because to me, there were issues even bigger than Hill’s comments that made me squirm Saturday night…

During breaks in the action, the Wings scoreboard showed video clips of “great fights.” I’m pretty sure the featured combatants weren’t all Wings players; they just showed NLL players throwing haymakers. As far as I know, even the NHL – or AHL – doesn’t do that. What are we promoting? What’s the message? Why not show highlights of Wings goals, or goalie saves?

This Shawny Hill guy was “announcing” the entire game, too – and when there was a call against the Wings, he’d yell to the crowd, “How about it Philadelphia… what do you think of that call?” And Wells Fargo Arena erupted with boos and catcalls. After a coach’s challenge failed to disallow a Swarm goal, he did the same thing.

Now, I’ve done various event and game management assignments since the ‘80s, and as I watched and listened to the night’s many head-scratchers, I asked Eric, “Is it like this at Mammoth games?” He said that, in his experiences at NBA Nuggets and Colorado’s NLL games, they did play music throughout the game, and that there were a lot of “entertainment” side dishes to keep everyone involved, but he said that Philly’s show was, in fact, over the top.

Ironically, a few blocks up Broad Street, the weekend’s LaxCon featured US Lacrosse sponsored speakers, including box lacrosse and youth coaches from the US and Canada – as well as the Swarm’s head coach Ed Comeau and the Wings’ head coach Paul Day – talking to their audiences about taking the violence out of the game, promoting sportsmanship and fair play, and raising the bar in expectations from players, coaches, and spectators.

In fact, on that same scoreboard, the Wings ran a list of youth teams that were in attendance that night, and with the convention in town, it was a lengthy one. My takeaway was that the Wings organization was thankful for the paying support of young lacrosse fans, but completely oblivious to the efforts or many well-intentioned coaches, officials, and parents who are trying to make the lacrosse spectator world better, not worse. I don’t think it’s much of an exaggeration to say that everything coaches, parents, organizers, and officials preach – about sportsmanship, class, and role modeling – was being thrown to the wind and breached on Saturday night.

Imagine sitting in Gillette Stadium last Memorial Day Weekend and hearing the PA announcer ask the crowd what they thought about a slashing call against Yale? Or sitting in Netanya’s stadium last July when the US scored that controversial last-second goal (or when Canada was called for off-sides with just minutes to go in the game) and hearing the PA announcer yell, “How about it, Canada fans, what did you think of that call?”

Seriously, I think Shawny Hill (and the Wings organization) could be held legally responsible for inciting a riot if things ever got out of hand at a game. Imagine some fan throwing his beer can, or someone climbing over the boards, after hearing a Wings professional encourage the crowd to “bang on that glass!” (oh yeah – he yelled that, too). In any hockey game I’ve ever been to – and I’ve been to many – that’s always been prohibited. On Saturday night, respect for the players, the officials, and the game itself was nowhere to be found.

I looked up Shawny Hill’s website (www.shawnyhill.com). At the top of his site he boasts “Innovative Thinker. Proactive leader. Proven history of creative success.” Under the heading “Flyers TV On Camera Host Producer / Fan Engagement Specialist,” it says, “Brand specialist, host, and creative strategist for one of the NHL’s top hockey markets. Responsible for developing innovative digital, social, and live promotional content for in-game presentation, reaching 750,000 fans annually.”

For someone who claims to be such a professional, I think his actions were very, very unprofessional. I’m guessing from his resume that he is also at least partially responsible for the glass-banging, the booing, and even the fight video.

As I started writing this, I hoped that Mr. Hill and the Wings would agree to permanently part ways, and that the Wings’ organizers take a long, hard look at their overall “entertainment” package. Yes, the T-shirt cannon (that resembled a Howitzer) was awesome and unlike anything I’ve ever seen. The bungee contest was hilarious. The Beach Boys/Tony Bennett/Jimmy Buffet music played for the Swarm and the AC/DC and Foo Fighters music played for the Wings was funny, too. Even the “Haul Your Balls” chuck-a-puck rip-off was cute.

Late last night, I found an Atlanta Journal-Constitution article announcing that Shawny Hill had in fact been fired by the Wings, but there are still issues to address. The fighting videos and the PA announcer trying to encourage the crowd to act in an unsportsmanlike manner – to the point of very poor sportsmanship, let alone racism – I mean, what messages are they sending?

Lacrosse can be one of the most inclusive communities of all. Short or tall. Black or white. American, Canadian, Asian, African, or European. Male or female. Old or young. Box or field. Youth, scholastic, club, collegiate, pro, and international. In the LaxCon vendors’ area, Jewish Lacrosse Camps had a table set up across from the Fellowship of Christian Athletes booth (which was next to a table featuring items from the Italian and Croation national teams – these kinds of details do not go unnoticed!). We’re making such big strides – or so we like to think.

Maybe I’m just old and set in my ways. Maybe this kind of boorish behavior – encouraging the fans to boo and show poor sportsmanship – happens in arenas all over the country. If that’s the case, it needs to be addressed. But if it’s really just this extreme, this one crazy night in Philadelphia, then it needs to come to a complete stop. Now.

If the AJC’s report is accurate (it was the only such report I found, which seemed odd), then kudos to the Wings for taking the correct first step – but I’d like to see more. Ditch the fight video, as well as the PA “host” pouring gasoline on the fire of fan behavior. Reinforce what kids’ coaches are trying to accomplish, not the opposite.

Your next home game is Saturday, January 26, Philadelphia. To the Wings’ front office – show us your mettle, your resolve. Do more than send Mr. Hill back to the Aberdeen IronBirds – re-evaluate every aspect of your overall “fan experience.” Show some class and model a respectful, competitive environment; it can be done if you choose to. Make things better.

We’ll be waiting and watching.

In the meantime, RTD readers, please drive carefully!

- Dan Witmer daniel.witmer@oswego.edu

Dan Witmer is the author of two books. The Best of Road Trip Dad – the Laker Lacrosse Collection is an accumulation of 45 articles written for JustLacrosseUpstate between the years 2012 and 2018, about the history and traditions, the people, and the stories of the Oswego State men’s lacrosse program. The book is available on Amazon.com, and at the river’s end bookstore in Oswego, the SUNY Oswego College Store in the Marano Campus Center, The Sports Outfit on West Genesee Street in Fairmount, and Geared 2 Sports in Cortland. ...and piles to go before I sleep - The Book of Wit is his memoir describing his 33 year career teaching HS English and coaching at Hannibal Central School. It is available on Amazon.com and soon to be on the shelves at the river's end bookstore.