The TSSAA has handed down harsh punishment for Haywood High School's baseball team and its overall athletic program after an incident involving two of its coaches during the Class AA state tournament last week.
In a 6-4 loss to Sequatchie County in an elimination game in Smyrna, Haywood baseball coach Dusty Rhodes and assistant Alex Whitwell were ejected and Rhodes had to be physically restrained by players as he argued with game umpires about an illegal pitch call.
The disagreement escalated into a situation that involved Rhodes kicking dirt on and following an umpire around the baseball field. Whitwell was ejected for using profane language during the incident.
The TSSAA requested that administrators from the western Tennessee school deal with the incident and report their findings and disciplinary action to the state office. TSSAA staff also reviewed video of the incident and read all submitted documentation.
Haywood administrators submitted a recommendation that Rhodes serve a two-game suspension to start the 2020 season and pay a $250 fine. Those are standard punishments for a baseball coach's ejection under TSSAA guidelines, though Haywood also recommended Rhodes pay the fine out of his own pocket.
In the recommendation, Haywood principal Latonya Jackson wrote: "This is our first incident of this manner with Coach Rhodes and this behavior is not typical for him. We feel that the suspension and fine from the TSSAA is adequate and will not add any extra games to this suspension but will work closely with Coach Rhodes to offer support in order to prevent this behavior from happening again.
"We are grateful for an opportunity to make it to Spring Fling this year and hope to be back next year."
However, the TSSAA responded with much harsher penalties that included Rhodes and Whitwell both sitting out the first two varsity games, the baseball program being placed on restrictive probation for two years and the athletic program being placed on probation for two years. Under restrictive probation, a team is not eligible to participate in the postseason and cannot receive any award recognizing its regular-season finish.
In addition, the baseball program was fined $2,000 and the athletic program was fined an additional $2,000, along with Rhodes and Whitwell being fined $250 each.
"The administration was given ample opportunity to address this unfortunate incident but chose to only enforce what the bylaws require," TSSAA executive director Bernard Childress wrote in the TSSAA's response to Haywood. "Principals and coaches must realize that they have more responsibilities than the general public to understand the purpose of high school athletics and the principles behind the TSSAA rules, and they must maintain that level of understanding and purpose when dealing with the general public and students.
"The TSSAA and its member schools believe strongly that the major purpose of athletics at the secondary level is to be part of the total education program. A major part of this purpose is to stress to coaches, players, officials and fans the vital importance of sportsmanship. It is critical that all people in each of these categories understand the major role that they play and the role model that they can be for others."
Childress said the decision to punish the overall baseball program was the most difficult aspect because TSSAA administrators understood those penalties would directly affect players who had not committed any disciplinary violations. However, because of the way the TSSAA's bylaws are written, when it comes to punishment beyond standard suspensions and fines the state's athletic association can discipline only the member schools - not coaches.
"It's a very difficult call for us because we are an organization that cannot discipline school employees," Childress told the Times Free Press. "The way our constitution is written, we're limited in what we can do. Our hands are tied because we can only penalize the athletic program since it's those programs that are members of the TSSAA. That's why we ask the schools to tell us what they're going to do.
"It's up to the administrators to take action that is appropriate for whatever the violation is, and in this incident, the action that the school administration had submitted was not appropriate for the behavior of their coaches. We have to penalize appropriately so we can send a message to others that this will not be tolerated."