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UNICO game deserves more respect than this Dave Konopki OPINION

It’s not fair to game chairman Bill Anzalone. It’s not fair to the good people at UNICO.

And it certainly isn’t fair to the many charities that have benefited from the event sponsored by the Wilkes-Barre Chapter of the Italian-American service organization.

A bench-clearing brawl took place during the 59th annual UNICO all-star football game Wednesday night at Wilkes-Barre Memorial Stadium. The contest – which annually features some of the top seniors from the Wyoming Valley Conference, Northwest and Wyoming Seminary – was stopped by game officials with less than two minutes remaining.

Unfortunately, it’s not the first time.

In fact, this year’s contest was the second in eight years that game officials brought to an early end because of fights. And there have been other incidents. In 2001, there was a bench-clearing brawl and several other fights. The following year, it was even worse.

The 2002 contest was stopped with a little more than seven minutes remaining in the game after both benches emptied during a fight. And that came after there were six ejections and at least 10 personal fouls called.

There were player ejections in 2003 and 2004. There were also accusations of players intentionally targeting an opposing kicker.

I can recall attending more than a few UNICO games in the 1980s and 1990s that were filled with personal fouls, fights and ejections.

I didn’t cover the game and wasn’t aware of what took place until an hour or so following the contest. A short time later, our newspaper’s online editor made me aware of a video of the melee that had been posted on youtube.com.

I watched the 1 minute, 37 second video. What I saw was stupid, scary, unacceptable and disturbing.

Two players ran onto the field and into the fray without wearing a helmet, while the helmet of another player came off during the altercation. What would have happened if any of those players had a head-to-head collision – even by accident – with a player wearing a helmet?

It’s only a matter of time before someone gets his nose broken or breaks his jaw. Or worse.

But perhaps the most disturbing part of the video wasn’t the sight of testosterone-raging players trying to show everyone how tough they are. In fact, it didn’t take place on the artificial surface.

While the action was taking place on the field, fans in the bleachers were applauding, and yelling encouragement. In fact, near the end of the video, two players can be seen coming off the field, acknowledging the cheers – and asking for more.

Watch the video and listen to the crowd’s reaction, especially in the final 20 seconds. This wasn’t a small group of high school students cheering on their buddies

I’m not about to lay the blame for these incidents – and I’m being nice by not using a stronger word – at the feet of the game officials, who don’t make a penny by doing the game – instead choosing to donate their officiating fee to UNICO.

The officials warn the players about misconduct before the game and have been quick to throw penalty flags – and players out of the contest – the minute something happens.

“We talk to the players before the game about rules and sportsmanship,” said Frank Galicki, who was part of this year’s officiating crew. “It’s extremely unfortunate. It left a negative impression on the game.”

And the lasting impression from each game should be the quality of play on the field and the positive impact that money raised from the game will have on local charities.

Proceeds from the contest have enabled the organization to do some wonderful things that have benefited thousands of people for more than half a century.

I wouldn’t go so far as to say things are out of hand and the game needs to stop being played.

And last night’s game was the first game-ending brawl since the game was moved from the summer to Thanksgiving in 2003.

But something needs to be done.

I’m not going to pretend like I have all of the answers. I don’t. At least not now.

Perhaps players who are ejected or involved in a bench-clearing brawl should be suspended for a certain amount of time if they participate in another sport during the school year. That decision would have to come from the school because District 2 and the PIAA are not involved in the all-star game.

Or maybe players should sign some kind of a contract before the game, stating that anyone fighting or ejected would have to perform a certain number of community service hours to a charity that benefits from the game.

Tell our readers what you think. Post your suggestion on the bottom of my column at www.timesleader.com.

The UNICO game has been a positive part of the Wyoming Valley community for almost six decades. Let’s keep it that way.

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