Benched: when athletes get pulled from the big game

A student’s recent suspension from a varsity basketball game has led to a broader conversation about when disciplinary consequences are meted out in the athletic arena rather than the academic one, and why.

Junior Tate Rietkerk sat out the boys’ quarterfinal game on March 2 against East Longmeadow. The infraction that led to his game suspension was a speeding incident in the middle school parking lot on his way to practice.

A middle school teacher flagged him down to tell him to slow down, Rietkerk backed up to ask him what he said, and then Rietkerk allegedly  drove off without saying anything.

The next day, Rietkerk and his family met with Principal Mark Jackson and Athletic Director Rich Ferro to discuss the disciplinary action.

“[Jackson] wanted to make me understand what I did was wrong and think about it,” Rietkerk said as he explained the negotiation process, “but in reality I ended up not even focusing [on] what happened because of the harshness of the punishment.”

Rietkerk affirms the incident merited a reprimand.

“I think there should have been more of an effort to make a reasonable or creative punishment that actually suited what happened,” he said. “What if I weren’t an athlete? What would the punishment have been, or would there have been a punishment at all?”

Under Disciplinary Infractions in the Student Handbook, section 25b states that “the first offense of reckless driving calls for loss of parking privileges on school grounds for 10 days.”

Given that fact, one might then understand Rietkerk’s questioning of the administration’s decision.

Many students and teammates met Rietkerk’s suspension with displeasure and confusion. Why suspend a student athlete from a game for an infraction that would be assigned a different consequence for non-athletes?

Principal Mark Jackson explained that it’s important for administrators to be able to apply “another source of leverage,” noting that athletic participation is a “privilege” and not a right.

According to Mr. Jackson, ARHS does not have a reputation for harsh punishment.

“We have never been a heavy suspending school and are pretty judicious when handing out serious punishment,” he said. “Suspension comes at a time when behavior is egregious.”

Furthermore, “in the disciplinary code there is language that allows the administration to have authority to take discretionary action to maintain an orderly environment within the school,” he said.

ARHS varsity basketball coach Jamie Matuszko saw possible benefits to the reprimand, as well. “A game suspension can be used to refocus a player and help to keep them on a good path in and out of the school environment,” said Matuszko.

Concerning Rietkerk’s quarterfinal suspension, Matusko was not a part of the decision process but trusted the administration to make the right call.

“I have found the school administration, especially the athletic department, to be very fair and concerned about any ramifications before handing out any game suspensions,” he said. “This one was just bad timing.”

Yet, Coach Matuszko admits there are cons to game suspensions, too. “The downside of it is that the team can suffer, especially if the suspension could have been avoided,” he said. “Game suspensions may not always be the best solution.”

Athletic Director of ARHS Rich Ferro believes there should be a strong correlation between athletics and behavioral issues.

“We try to make sure people understand there needs to be a connection between student behavior in and out of school and athletics,” said Mr. Ferro.

He also understands that taking away a student’s playing time hits them “where it hurts.”

“Sometimes it is the only way to most effectively get the point across,” he said.  “A game suspension may have more of an impact on a student athlete than anything else because it is what matters to them.”

Mr. Ferro even admitted that he had his “own issues with game suspensions when I was in high school.”

“I get it,” he said.