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COL Shaking hands gets out of hand

They don't shake hands anymore in the Northern Neck of Virginia.

Too many rude comments were made, too many people got spat on, too many fights broke out. So the principals of five schools in the Northern Neck District agreed to end the policy of having opposing high school athletic teams line up single file to shake hands after the game.

In theory, that was supposed to signal an end to competition and respect for worthy opponents. In practice, football, soccer and basketball teams kept turning into wrestling teams, grappling on grass fields and hardwood floors. Hence, the ban on handshakes, which went into effect at the beginning of the athletic season. That decision has been decried by parents, editorialists and others, but was freshly affirmed by the administrators earlier this month.

You might take it as a sign that These Kids Today have no concept of sportsmanship as we did, back in the day. I'd agree, except that my high school football team used to sprint for the buses whenever they won an away game, because they knew that if the fans and players of the losing team caught them, it would not be pretty. Makes it hard to mount the high horse.

Still, I'd be lying if I said I was not struck by the ban in Virginia. If the lack of sportsmanship is not a new wrinkle, perhaps you'll agree that this acquiescence to it is.

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Granted, there's no way to quantify that observation. But can you imagine a principal, a coach, a parent or some other adult authority back in the aforementioned day backing down from an important principle simply because young people resisted it?

That is not to lay blame for the decline and fall of Western civilization at the feet of a few school administrators who are, after all, liable for the misbehaviors of students in their care. It is only to suggest that perhaps it is not, in the long run, the smartest thing in the world to change the rules to accommodate that misbehavior. Maybe it would be better to leave sensible rules in place and instead exact a price when students get out of line.

Of course, exacting a price from children has become rather an alien concept in recent years. Consider that in 2002, parents in Piper, Kan., harassed and threatened a teacher because she failed kids for cheating; the school board ordered her to soften the punishment and she wound up quitting her job.

Or, consider that in 2003 in a Chicago suburb, 31 high school students beat a group of girls in a so-called "hazing" so brutal it left five girls hospitalized; one parent dismissed the attack as something that just "got out of hand."

Or, you can go back to spring of this year when a 5-year-old girl in St. Petersburg, Fla., threw a tantrum so epic police had to be called; when last heard from, her mother was talking about filing a lawsuit.

I wondered then what I wonder now: What is wrong with saying to our young people: "There's a standard you are required to live up to and if you don't, you will be held accountable, period."

If all our institutions -- school, home, worship house -- said that consistently and enforced it consistently, do you think young people would learn lessons of value? Better question: what lessons do they learn otherwise?

I mean, sure, the schools can keep their ban. Or, they can post adult monitors on the field, issue stern instruction to their athletes and tell them to go shake hands. If Yitzhak Rabin could do it with Yasser Arafat, if John Kerry could do it with George W. Bush, if Shaq and Kobe can touch fists, it's hard to believe the Raiders of Rappahannock High cannot reach across to the Lancaster Red Devils.

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After all, there are important lessons here. How to win, how to lose and how to be an adult either way. These are things kids need to know and we are obligated to teach.

We ought never back down from that.

Leonard Pitts Jr. is a columnist for the Miami Herald. His e-mail address is lpitts@herald.com.

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