PARTSCH: LHSAA’s ‘fixer’ facing possible fiasco
Who is Eddie Bonine?
Is he the tough-as-nails lawman that will eventually unite the fractured state of high school athletics in Louisiana with a unwavering resolve of strength and purpose?
Or is he the short-fused bully, who absolutely despises anyone that stands in his way and will manipulate the media and principals to get what he wants?
With less than a year since taking office as Louisiana High School Athletic Association’s Executive Director, it is hard to figure out who Bonine truly is. To be honest, we as sports journalists and fans of high school athletics may never be able to answer that question, even though the answer it is probably that he is a small portion of both public personas.
But with the LHSAA’s annual convention at the Crowne Plaza in Baton Rouge looming on the horizon (Jan. 27-29), how the state’s officiating body (Louisiana High School Officials Association) and public school principals perceive him, and more importantly the relationship he has constructed, or deconstructed, will play a significant role in Bonine’s role as a leader.
Bonine’s approach to disciplining schools and players, who get involved in brawls is one that deserves to be commended.
First there was Amite High being removed from the state football semifinals last fall due to an on-field fight in the quarterfinals against Bogalusa. A state district judge upheld the ruling. The two teams are scheduled to play this fall but no fans will be allowed to attend the game.
Then there was the fight recently between the Landry-Walker and McDonogh 35 boys basketball teams. Due to that fight, Bonine quickly cancelled the second game between the two teams.
Kids of any age, including high school kids, need structure and need to be taught there are consequences to violent outbursts and Bonine’s swift handling is a highlight of his tenure so far.
Where Bonine would soon misstep is how he treated the LHSOA like they were spoiled children.
In May of 2015, the LHSOA asked the LHSAA for raises for its football, volleyball, soccer, basketball, wrestling, softball and baseball officials. The LHSOA also sent out contracts to all schools, which required the schools to contract for services at new higher rates, even though signing the contracts does violate a portion of the LHSAA constitution.
The LHSAA principals rejected the pay raises for basketball and volleyball officials and also removed the travel pay for umpires of baseball-softball games who are on site to call games that ultimately are rained out.
Frustrated by the talks and the LHSOA’s public hard-line stance, Bonine went on WNXX-FM back in July and had himself a good ole’ fashioned rant.
“They’ve pissed me off,” Bonine said. “You can only put up with so much of this. They’ve chosen to argue their case in the media. And if they want to do that, we can.”
Bonine would go to state, “I’m not an advocate for officials. I’m not an advocate for principals. I’m going to make sure that (kids) remains the focus, first of all. Whenever we have adults affecting what could happen with kids, it ticks me off. Of course, none of this gets us any closer to having officials this fall.”
Bonine calmed down the following day and a week later, Bonine and LHSOA President Paul LaRosa had a closed-door meeting that resulted in a tentative agreement for no work stoppage for the fall sports.
Bonine publicly attacked LHSOA for taking a stance, and indicating in such a cheap manner that the group doesn’t care about kids. I have gotten to know more than a few officials over the years and trust me when I say that one of the reasons they officiate isn’t for the lucrative pay check, which remains one of the lowest in the country, it is because they love sports and the kids that take part in those events.
And I love how Bonine, and many of my fellow scribes, always bring up the kids and that a strike hurts the children. Yet, the officials are the ones expected to take less pay for the children but yet the principals and LHSAA officials don’t’ have to.
Even though Bonine and LaRosa reached a tentative agreement over the summer, which in theory is supposed to also provide raises to the baseball and softball crews in the spring, and current basketball officials received a $10 raise, it still has to be formally approved by the entire body of principals at the convention.
The same group that has routinely balked at giving pay raises to officials. If the body doesn’t then LHSOA will go back to being paid on the old pay scale, and it is presumed that officials will go on strike like they did before in 2011.
Publicly shaming them may not have been a great idea, especially when the group you represent has feuded with them for decades.
Then Bonine dropped the bombshell at an impromptu news conference on Friday.
During the news conference, Bonine announced that the LHSAA did not follow its constitution when it approved split football championships back in 2013. Bonine came to this conclusion based on the opinion of the LHSAA’s new attorney Mark Boyer.
The opinion stated that the LHSAA did not follow its own constitution while passing the split because it did not go through the executive committee for approval before the decisive vote.
My favorite part of the news conference is when LHSAA President Vic Bonnaffee of Central Catholic said the following, “Mr. Bonine is a collaborator and throughout this process he has worked with the officers of the executive committee, the parliamentarian and our attorney. I want to stress that he is the messenger in this situation. This is not something he created or sought out. We understand there are people who will not like this. Again, Mr. Bonine is the messenger.”
Are we supposed to believe that a man brought in to lead the governing body, which was severely split due to split football playoffs, is only the messenger? That he didn’t ask the attorney to look into whether or not the split broke any rules? That if it did, this would be his chance to force the groups back together?
Once again, treating the public, much like he did with the LHSOA, like children is not a smart move.
Look I personally feel that having nine classifications for playoffs lessens the playoff process. It is “The Participation Trophy Era of LHSAA football,” but I also understand why the principals voted to split to begin with.
Does Bonine think that those same leaders that so passionately pushed for the split or going to simply sit back and allow this to occur? That they won’t have another vote and send it through the Executive Committee. And what will happen if they do that and then committee votes no to that proposal?
The issues with the split are far from over.
I admit that there is little doubt that the LHSAA desperately needed an outsider like Bonine, who was hired away from Nevada where he held the same role, to bring a fresh approach to the LHSAA.
The seven-year tenure of previous director Kenny Henderson, who was ousted in October 2014, was a tumultuous one, a time which cultivated division throughout the state.
Henderson’s aloof personality didn’t help matters when dealing with media or school officials but it was ultimately a trifecta of incidents that occurred on his watch that doomed his tenure.
Henderson moved the Top 28 away from the Cajundome in Lafayette, to the Shreveport-Bossier City area for games mind you that never took place there due to financial woes by the host organizations. That started having one of the LHSAA’s premier events rotating between locales that neither fans, coaches or journalists found appealing or as well-done as Lafayette.
There was the referees strike in 2011 in which four basketball officiating associations (Alexandria,Hammond, Monroe and Shreveport) decided not to accept basketball assignments. The strike was made in response to the LHSAA rejecting a pay raise proposal at the convention’s business meeting that year.
And finally there was the schism with the state’s high school football playoffs. In January of 2013, the LHSAA membership split the playoffs into select and non-select schools.
A change, and one of strength, was needed but Bonine has seemed to take the wrong approach. From ranting on the radio about officials to overturning a decision based on legal counsel has only appeared to have alienated all sides even further.
During his introductory news conference on that Saturday morning in the bowels of the Mercedes-Benz Superdome more than year ago, Bonine pledged the following, “I’m a fixer. That’s what I do.”
In time, maybe sooner than expected, we will see if his approach to dealing with people and issues will help keep that promise or shatter it even further.