Cruel chant in stands contrasts with classic contest

Commentary

The beauty and the ugliness of scholastic basketball played out in their highest forms about 10 miles apart in Blair County on Friday evening.

In Bellwood, the Bellwood-Antis and Juniata Valley girls engaged in a game for the ages, one that has a place high on the list of the best high school contests this writer has ever witnessed as a player, coach, scout, reporter or fan.

It was an example of what can happen when two seasoned, proven teams, each boasting all-state performers and Division I or II college prospects, elite-level role players and terrific coaches face off with something for which to play, and the attitude that this midseason encounter meant as much as any postseason clash. The gymnasium was packed and lively, and the officiating was solid.

The unbelievable rollercoaster ride that was the last minute of that Inter-County Conference North Division battle, with Emilie Leidig’s two clutch 3-pointers being trumped by Halee Smith’s foul line-to-baseline dash for a bucket as time expired tied an appropriate bow on the affair. Neither team nor even the fans seemed to have anything to complain about what had transpired over that roughly 80-minute span.

It would have made Jan. 12, 2018 a night to remember in area basketball annals … if what was happening at the Altoona Area High School Fieldhouse had not made it a night so many would just as soon forget.

What should have been a victory worth crowing about over a quality, archrival Hollidaysburg squad — a win that could have gone a long way to turning the corner for the Altoona boys this season — instead became a night that had Mountain Lion players apologizing for close to an hour to their opponents.

In a move that can at best be described as utter stupidity and at worse was an act of unconscionable cruelty, the Altoona student section decided the last two minutes would be a good time to torment Hollidaysburg player Casey Ottaway over the untimely death of his mother 16 months ago with an inappropriate chant.

It was the kind of moment that goes beyond poor sportsmanship. This wasn’t the type of thing that makes your heart sink as a coach, player or official, it’s one that rips at your heart as a human being. It was that inhumane.

It’s the kind of action that shakes your faith in the present and the future of all of us.

One of the worst things is it doesn’t appear it was just a few misguided individuals. Upon viewing the video of this travesty of behavior, the chanting was so loud and clear that it obviously was the majority of the members of a student section that appeared to number more than 100 acting in concert. It was organized in a fashion that would have made a choral director proud.

It was executed in a manner that would make any person with an ounce of compassion and decency cringe.

The other awful thing is that this action isn’t as surprising as it should be. Set aside the fact that sensitivity appears to have become a punchline in our society, a trait that is often scorned and ridiculed. Anyone who has attended Altoona-Hollidaysburg sporting events in recent years has seen how the respective rooting sections tightrope the line between gamesmanship and being inappropriate.

At least many of those efforts show some level of creativity in their razzing. This had all the subtlety of dropping an anvil from 1,000 feet onto a crowd of people. In no way, shape or form could a reasonable person think anything good would come of this, or even anything remotely amusing.

In the past, Altoona had teachers sitting with the students to keep things in check. If that policy still isn’t in effect, it should be reinstituted. But not this year.

The rest of this season calls for something more drastic. The student section should be dissolved. Let the kids sit with their parents at the games, and maybe with other friends in small groups. The school still should employ strategically-placed chaperones through the stands.

Altoona athletic director Phil Riccio and the Altoona administrators over the weekend expressed that they were hoping to find a teachable moment in this incident. Good luck with that, because, aside from showing that people can respond appropriately in reaction to this kind of horrific behavior, all anyone really learned is mindless malice knows no age, race, gender or limits.

Saying “I’m sorry” only goes so far. You can bandage wounds. The scars remain.

Cmor can be reached at 946-7440 or pcmor@altoonamirror.com.

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