Rules are rules, right?
High school basketball players have to tuck in their shirts, football players are penalized for "talking trash," and tennis players are prohibited from verbal or racquet abuse _ and wearing their baseball caps backwards.
That last rule might sound silly, and last week at the state high school tennis tournament at Hillsborough Community College, some players and coaches either laughed at or took offense to certain disciplinary rulings. Players were penalized for wearing suggestive T-shirts, for profanity stenciled on a racquet, and for muttering a mild curse word.
"If this is what goes on, this is why we're getting to the point where kids are not going to play high school tennis anymore," said Naples Barron Collier coach Ken Fairbanks after his doubles pair was disqualified for "directing verbal abuse at an opponent." The girls denied using profanity.
Did the Florida High School Activities Association go too far then in disciplining players in some instances where the United States Tennis Association would not? Or not far enough?
"We are trying to bring high school tennis in line with other high school sports," said tournament director Frank Perez, a Plant High history teacher and former tennis coach. "We do not need to bring it in line with the USTA. They are the ones who need a gut check and need to see if they have a backbone. They are too lenient."
Perez, who has directed the FHSAA tournament for four years, is adamant that high school tennis should not treat players any differently than football players. In a special report last week, Sports Illustrated wrote that self-centered, pampered teenagers with little regard for discipline and team play are the root of problems plaguing amateur and professional tennis.
Perez agreed with the magazine's assessment. He believes players who are used to the relative freedom in Florida Tennis Association tournaments must still respect the FHSAA guidelines.
"We put an emphasis on sportsmanship," said FHSAA commissioner Ron Davis. "It's important that we stick to the good old down-home values. We don't apologize for the rules. I think sometimes kids are looking too much at the pro players."
"My girls don't even say "shoot' anymore," said Erin Russell, coach of the Seminole team that finished fourth in Class 5A. "We were sort of laughing about how strict they were. They must have said 10 times that the bill of your cap goes forward. But really, I have been coaching for seven years and this year, as far as conduct, was the best I have ever seen."
East Lake coach Brad Maisner agreed with Russell, even though his second doubles team forfeited a game due to misconduct. "The only thing that I was concerned with was who could question an (interpretation)," he said. "Too much is left to the coaches (to point out misconduct). I would rather see more officials monitoring the courts to interpret the rules."
Perez acknowledged there were not enough officials to watch every match, and some officials' rulings were not consistent with FHSAA guidelines. Parents complained that when players hit balls outside the court in frustration after a point, some referees, used to working FTA tournaments, did not assess a penalty.
With varying rule/conduct interpretations, high school tennis and the state junior branch of the USTA invariably find conflict _ including scheduling of tournaments. One player from Pensacola will receive a fine from the FHSAA because he defaulted from a state tournament match in order to play an FTA-designated tournament.
But then, the two bodies have always had different goals. The high school season is a third of the year, and tennis players who hope for college scholarships need FTA experience and rankings to earn them. A high school state title is nice fodder for an application, but relatively unimportant to many collegiate coaches, said Perez.
Thom Howard, coach and principal of the Class 2A state champion Thom Howard Academy, said that if kids "had their choice of playing either high school or FTA, they would choose FTA."
That's not necessarily because players want to flee FHSAA's stricter rules and codes of conduct, but more because players seek a higher level of competition in the FTA.
"It speaks mountains when a good tennis player plays high school tennis," Perez said. "To be an exceptional player, you still need to show at least a little bit of team spirit."
Not to mention sportsmanship.