Road Trip Dad - Dear Mr. Abbottt . . .

Dan Witmer | August 31, 2015
I meant to use some of this space earlier this summer to congratulate Tom Abbott when he was named the new NCAA national coordinator of men’s lacrosse officials, but I kept putting it off. This week, not only do I publically say “Congrats and good luck, Mr. Abbott,” but I also figured I’d take the opportunity to address a few rules I think need some attention.

Before I get to the rules, let me say a few words about Tom Abbott. An NCAA press release dated July 24, 2015 says that Tom started officiating college lacrosse in 1982, which was my senior year at Oswego State and the beginning of my coaching career. I don’t know how many times he worked an Oswego State game in the years that followed, but I always felt just a little bit better when I saw him show up for a game. He was always the guy to call if you needed officials for a scrimmage, and Tom has probably refereed more Oswego State fall alumni games than anyone else. There was at least one year when
he called me to ask if we needed officials for our annual first-weekend-in-October alumni game tradition; I had forgotten to line up refs and he knew the game was coming up in a few weeks. Talk about proactive officiating!

Yes, he was an All-American at Syracuse and yes, he’s the father of Mike and Matt. Yes, he has refereed summer leagues, men’s leagues, JV and varsity games, Division I, II, and III games, and Lake Placid games for decades. He has done NCAA championship games, MLL pro games, and FILA World Games – and still he promised me he’d be here in Oswego on October 3 when Oswego State has its 39th annual Alumni Game – on its long-awaited turf field, no less.

The NCAA position couldn’t have gone to a more-deserving referee. Congratulations again, Mr. Abbott.

So, all that nice stuff aside, Mr. Referee, Sir, let’s talk about some lacrosse rules…

Yes, the current set of rules for college and high school boys have changed, and yes, they have changed for the better (for the most part, anyway, but don’t get me going on the final two minutes of a college game again…). Still, there are some existing rules that aren’t enforced, maybe a few that still need to be changed, and then there are a few rules we need that don’t exist at this time.

For instance…

The only push that is illegal in the game of lacrosse is the push from behind. I’ve seen so many examples of a player being pushed out of bounds, chest to chest, face to face, and the referee throws a flag and blows his whistle, and calls a 30-second push call. When questioned, he re-enacts the motion of how the player went from bent arms to straight arms and tries to convince me that the other player was indeed pushed out of bounds.

And I agree – he WAS pushed out of bounds! But that’s not illegal! If he had his back turned, if he was boxing out, and he was pushed from behind, then that’s the right call to make… but only then!

· SOLUTION: in the future, when referees make the call, they should always add the phrase “from behind” to the “push” call. Maybe that would remind everyone what’s legal and what’s not. See, that’s not difficult. I don’t want to change the world; I just want to see a better game on game day.

Here’s another one.

Lacrosse has two kinds of fouls – technical fouls and personal fouls. Personal fouls (tripping, slashing, cross checking, unnecessary roughness, illegal body check, unsportsmanlike conduct, etc.) are always full time served, regardless of possession. Technical fouls (pushing FROM BEHIND, holding, illegal procedure, off-sides, illegal team personnel action, etc.), on the other hand, are only time served penalties if the fouled team has possession at the time of the foul. I always thought that was pretty easy to understand and remember, but I’m amazed how many players are confused or just ignorant about this.

And occasionally – at lacrosse camp games refereed by college players, or maybe modified and JV games officiated by new referees – you’ll hear the “loose ball trip” call and just cringe.

But did you know that in the rule book there is a personal foul called “hitting from behind”? It’s hardly ever called; most referees rely on the safer, less-time-served 30-second “pushing FROM BEHIND” call instead, but I maintain that the foul is there for a reason – when an over-aggressive player rails an opponent from behind and blatantly makes little or no play for the ball, he should sit for a minute, no matter who has possession.

I’ve seen players get hit hard from the rear – illegally and dangerously – only to see a referee call a loose ball push and give that player’s team the ball. That’s not enough. The offending player should sit and his team should play man-down.

· SOLUTION: in the future, referees should resurrect the “hitting from behind” personal foul, and it when the situation warrants. It should NOT be confused with the loose ball push FROM BEHIND technical foul.

OK, everyone, when is the last time you heard or saw a “cross check hold” technical foul called? Correct answer? Maybe 1978.

“Cross check WHAAA?” you ask. That’s right; there is a technical foul in the books that is called a cross check hold – a hold, as opposed to a strike or blow to the back. It’s not as flagrant, not as harmful, so it only merits a 30-second visit to the sin bin. The problem is that it still exists in the rule book when, in fact, every defender, short stick or long stick, is guilty of this technique, and yet it is NEVER called – and I can see why now, because if a referee made the call in a game today, he’s have to call it on just about every offensive possession. Still, the rule exists in the book.

· SOLUTION: on this one, just delete it from the next printing of the rule book. Very few people will ever notice. I doubt you’ll see any difference in the years ahead in the way defense is either taught or played.

Here’s one I’d like to see added (or at least clarified). It doesn’t happen often, but I cringe whenever I do see it, and it’s hard to convince players, coaches, or referees that it’s dangerous, unnecessary, and it should be removed from the game.

Player A has the ball and is running toward a defender who is usually standing still or moving towards the ball carrier. As Player A approaches the defender, he lowers his head and initiates contact with his helmet, sometimes knocking the defender down or at least out of his way. I once saw a collision in a college game where BOTH players were knocked senseless (the defender had lowered his head, too, which seems to me to be the lesser crime here). They both had cuts from their own helmets, and they both probably suffered concussions (though we weren’t using that word then the way we use it today). They both had to be assisted by athletic trainers, and I know my player didn’t return to the game (we went so far as to hide his helmet, a trick I learned from watching football – or maybe some football movie).

In my experience, a split, roll, or face dodge would suffice in these situations. If this is what we used to call a bull dodge, then we should make certain that lowering the head to initiate contact is not part of the technique. I’ve seen brave, well-intentioned referees call it a spear, and the word “spearing” is in the NCAA rule book, but only as an example of an illegal body check. I’ve seen other well-meaning referees call it a variety of warding off.

· SOLUTION: Take the fine print out of the equation. “Illegal body check” makes everyone think that only the defender can be culpable. I can just hear a coach argue: “’Illegal body check’? But WE had the ball!” Add “spearing” to the list of personal fouls and make it easier to recognize, teach (players not to), and enforce…

Finally, the dive rule has to be changed. Either allow the offensive player to dive into the crease or disallow any goal in which the attacker enters any part of the crease unless pushed illegally in (remember, pushed FROM BEHIND).

Yes, Michael Watson and Doug Knight brought crowds to their feet in the mid-to-late ‘90s when they fearlessly took suicidal scoring routes to the crease, but safety concerns led to swift rule changes. Still, look at how the NHL has changed its crease rules – what was a controversial Stanley Cup-winning goal scored by the Dallas Stars’ Brett Hull in 1999 against the Sabres wouldn’t even merit a replay today.

I’m not really sure what stance I would take, but the present rule is much too gray – sometimes goals get called back, and sometimes they stand. Defenses, goalies, coaches, and fans are left in confusion. “Well, what about last week? Our goal was waved off because the ref said our player dove into the crease. Today, their guy does the same thing and you say he didn’t dive; his momentum carried him in after the shot. What gives?”

If I had to take a side I’d probably vote against the dive, but one way or the other, we need to change the current definition and application of the rule.

· SOLUTION: Change the way the rule is written so as to eliminate at least some of the gray area of uncertainty and inconsistency. Attackmen will still find a way to score creative, artistic, and athletic goals, and we’ll have fewer arguments and less confusion.

I wasn’t a fan of forbidding the college face-off guy (or anyone else) carrying the ball on the back of his stick, but at least the NCAA rules removed any uncertainty in its crackdown this past season. No meant no, and there was no room for arguments.

New York’s high school rules, however, left plenty of room for interpretation; I even heard a science lesson all about gravity in the middle of a heated discussion between a referee and a coach. The good news is that I’ve read that New York State high school rules are headed the direction of the new college rule, so that should prevent that particular debate from ever being repeated.

· SOLUTION: This is a New York high school issue – hopefully one of the past – so you’re off the hook, Mr. Abbott!

I sent a draft of this column to Tom Abbott yesterday afternoon, just to make sure I had my facts straight. Within a few hours, he emailed me back with a response that I will run next week, which I will entitle “Dear Road Trip Dad…” I hope you check back then to see his response.

All lives matter. Please drive safely.

- Dan Witmer