A Look Into the Struggle for Sportsmanship in Westchester

The challenge of keeping sportsmanship in youth leagues is a growing problem across Westchester County's sports teams.

Sportsmanship is far from dead in Westchester, where most games are played without incident. But increasing pressure to perform in hopes of landing a college scholarship and regular viewing of misbehavior by pro athletes on social media is proving to be a troubling combination, contributing to a widespread shortage of officials in most sports.

“All of a sudden, self-accountability went out the window,” says Mount Vernon native Gary Colorusso, founder of the Elite Baseball Umpires Association. “Nobody is at fault. Everybody wants to blame the umpire for their problems. It’s really gotten strange over the last 10, 15 years at all levels.”

“Strange” best describes what happened at a Mount Pleasant high school a few years ago. According to Eric Dronzek, one of two officials who worked the game, a player from the opposing Putnam County school verbally assaulted Dronzek’s partner even though the buzzer had sounded on an apparent two-point victory.

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Dronzek says the player shouted that the official with more than 50 years of experience was an “old man” and told him, “You f—— sucked!”

The abusive teenager did not realize officials retain jurisdiction until the court is cleared. A flagrant technical foul was assessed, leading to two foul shots that the Mount Pleasant team made to force overtime; they then went on to an improbable victory.

Michael Smith* never imagined that the game he umpired this past summer between two well-respected 13-and-under travel teams, the CT Kings and Baseball U, at Danbury High School, would end with a call to police.

In the top of the seventh inning, a parent positioned himself behind the backstop and began questioning balls and strikes being called by Smith while the man’s son was batting. He asked the parent to return to where other fans were seated. When the parent refused, he ejected him, and the parent was told to wait for his child in the parking lot until the game ended.

Smith says the parent went to his vehicle and positioned it so that high-beam lights would disturb the sight of some fielders. Smith had word relayed that he would end the game if the vehicle was not moved. The parent complied but Smith and his partner returned to find one tire slashed on each of their vehicles. The parent, charged with criminal mischief, made restitution to resolve the ugly matter.

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Tension in the Dobbs Ferry Youth Football League rose to a point where a special meeting was called in October 2022 to review the league’s purpose. Some parents objected to a rule that requires coaches to substitute at skill positions when their team owns a lead of 18 points or more. Action was taken against a coach from Harrison when he ignored that rule and piled up points against overmatched opponents in several games.

Stephen O’Leary, a past league president, is concerned about changes he observes. “Over 13 years, you got to a point where, ‘Whatever you say, coach’ changed to challenging the coach. It goes to a ‘me’ society. ‘My son, my kid.’”

If some parental behavior is disturbing, so is that of some children. Home plate umpire Roy Emlet never expected the reaction he got when he called a third strike against a New Castle Bulldogs batter in a 12-and-under game this past October in Sleepy Hollow.

The boy slammed his bat against the plate. “Oh my God! What the f—!” the 12-year-old shouted as he retreated to the dugout. Since league rules prohibit cursing, he was ejected. The foul-mouthed child began to cry after being told he could no longer play.

School administrators work to teach good sportsmanship. A sign welcoming fans to Sleepy Hollow High School notes that “Sportsmanship is an expectation. So please let the players play, let the coaches coach, let the officials officiate.” Such signs are typical at schools.

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The Greater Hudson Valley Baseball League, which attracts many local players, recently began requiring managers and coaches to take responsibility for unruly fans and remove the onus on umpires. If order is not restored after two warnings, umpires have the right to immediately end the game.

Long-time coaches, such as Mike Chiapparelli, in his 45th season as baseball and hockey coach at Mamaroneck High School, believe social media has created a far more challenging atmosphere. “Social media has given them a tablet where they can put themselves in a bad spot easier. They don’t think of the consequences,” he says.

sportsmanship
Illustration by Madeline McMahon

Not long ago, Chiapparelli felt he had no choice but to temporarily remove the title from one of his hockey captains after the teenager used social media to disparage an opponent and provide bulletin-board material for the other team. “He’s a really good kid who made a very bad choice on social media,” he says.

“Sportsmanship is an expectation. So please let the players play, let the coaches coach, let the officials officiate.”

Dave Greiner, an umpire for 39 years, emphasized the need for schools and coaches to discipline players guilty of unsportsmanlike conduct. “What you allow, you support,” he says. “It’s an extension of the classroom at every level.”

For every alarming incident, countless more good things happen on local fields and courts. Players often reach out to pick up fallen opponents. Gina Maher, in her 46th season as girls’ basketball coach at Irvington, noted contributions in time and money that opponents make when the Bulldogs host a tournament each January to assist those with autism.

“We coach to teach them the game. We also coach them to be good human beings,” says Maher, forever mindful of the greatest value of sports.

Freelance writer Tom Pedulla began his career with Gannett Westchester Newspapers in 1979 and is a long-time observer of Westchester sports. His work has been published in The New York Times, Los Angeles Times, and USA Today, among other major publications.

*Name was changed as the umpire requested to remain anonymous.

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