On the radio today I heard about a fight late in the second half of the Alabama-Birmingham vs. Louisiana Tech NCAA men’s basketball game last night, which caused the visiting Bulldogs to finish the contest with four players and only their head coach occupying their bench.

Must’ve been a preview of Sunday night’s WWE Royal Rumble, I thought.

Naturally upon returning to the office I searched online for some video; not only to see the visual spectacle of a brawl and subsequently empty Tech bench, but to see how the officials handled the situation as I had attended veteran three-sport official and officiating attorney Alan Goldberger’s “Calling the Game: Your Legal Rights” session at LaxCon Saturday in Baltimore.

The incident, with some exceptions, resembled more of a baseball “fight,” but credit the officials for properly enforcing rules that eject players who leave the bench during such cases. Goldberger, whose sessions at the US Lacrosse Convention I’ve attended in most years in an effort to learn something as a basketball official, stressed that officials have the legal right to prevent student-athletes from fighting.

“Great officials do not permit players to fight. Ever,” Goldberger said.

His legal counsel, gleaned from years of experience on the field and defending officials in litigation involving a variety of incidents, should complement instructions from officials associations regarding what to do if tempers between players flare. Many of us have been taught to avoid touching players, but, according to Goldberger, simply monitoring the combatants in order to issue appropriate penalties is not enough. Officials need to take quick and decisive preventive action when a fight may be brewing.

Goldberger delved into rule changes at the collegiate, scholastic and youth levels of play, and into case law when he presented colleagues with guidance on a number of player-safety and risk-management topics. According to Goldberger, officials have the legal right to:

  1. Maintain order on the field
  2. Prevent student-athletes from fighting
  3. Direct that an unsafe condition on the field be eliminated or remediated
  4. Suspend any game to protect players or others
  5. Have any person removed from a game if he/she is disruptive to the conduct of the game
  6. Terminate a game if control cannot be regained
  7. Refuse to permit an athlete’s return to play under concussion rules if warranted
  8. Decline to converse with persons not participating in the game or employed at the venue
  9. Be advised before the game of all rules modifications in effect
  10. Assistance from the site manager and security/police

Player safety remains a hot topic in sports, and you can count Goldberger among those that believe rules of play exist in part to minimize injury risk by players.

“We’re not going to solve the concussion problem with pamphlets to parents,” Goldberger said. “The enforcement of rules represents an effective way to reduce the risk of concussion.”

He then produced color-coded maps of the United States to illustrate which states have laws, and in what detail, governing athlete return-to-play procedures. The final map painted each state yellow. Why?

“Yellow is where there is confusion for officials,” he said.

There can be no misunderstanding when an official observes an athlete exhibiting one or more sign, symptom or behavior consistent with concussion following a hit or fall to the ground: the law and the rules say remove that player immediately, according to Goldberger.

“We have to be the adults,” Goldberger said. “Use the language of the rule when directing the athlete’s removal from the game. Remember it’s not whether you win or lose, it’s how you pay the (legal) claim. Be the adult and prevent the claim.”

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