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Coach Insists Altering Ball Wasn’t Wrong

Bob Johnson, the fiery Mission Viejo High football coach whose team hasn’t lost a game in the last two years, has decided he wants a public debate about ethics.

He has hired an attorney to challenge the decision of the Southern Section to punish Mission Viejo for using a doctored football in last year’s Division II championship game.

The executive committee voted in April to sanction Mission Viejo, requiring the football coaching staff to attend an ethics seminar and banning the team from hosting any playoff games next fall.

Johnson’s attorney, Tom Clark, is alleging that the committee violated the Brown Act by doing its business in a private session. In response, the Southern Section will hold a public hearing Wednesday where it is expected to make public a report from Mission Viejo Principal Marilyn McDowell.

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The dispute centers around the Southern Section requirement last year that playoff teams use a Spalding football as part of a promotional agreement. Sixteen schools were caught ignoring the rule by using a Wilson football but did not face punishment after agreeing not to repeat the violation.

Mission Viejo was found to have committed a more serious violation because it altered the label of a Wilson football to make it look like a Spalding in the championship game.

Johnson said Saturday he authorized the doctoring of several footballs. Mission Viejo insists it acted with approval from Rob Wigod, a Southern Section assistant commissioner.

Jim Staunton, the Southern Section commissioner, said he conducted an investigation and concluded that Wigod did not approve a doctored ball.

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Whether Wigod gave his blessing or not shouldn’t be the issue by which Mission Viejo tries to escape punishment.

The explanation, “It’s OK to cheat if someone in charge says so,” is not a valid excuse. But Johnson said he doesn’t consider doctoring a football cheating.

He compared it to pro and college athletes choosing to use products other than those endorsed by their teams.

“There’s not 10 schools that used Spalding footballs,” he said. “Everybody breaks that rule. If I was cheating, I’d be hiding it. I had one of our district [employees] paint 10 balls.”

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People at Mission Viejo don’t seem to understand the seriousness of the deception. They are in the education business, and their actions should cause concern among parents and others about what kind of ethical standards are being taught.

“We’re having the adults act like children, and these excuses are the excuses we get from an 11th grader who cheats on an exam,” said Michael Josephson, founder of the Marina del Rey-based Josephson Institute of Ethics. “Rules are a way of having a level playing field. If there’s some value in adopting a particular ball, then everyone has to play by the rules.”

No one thinks that Mission Viejo defeated Newhall Hart in the Division II final because of the doctored football. That’s not the reason for the punishment. Action was taken to send a message to Mission Viejo and others that doctoring a football is considered serious ethical misconduct.

“Rules define a sport,” Josephson said. “Without rules, you don’t have a sport, and for coaches not to have reverence for the concept of rules, you begin to destroy the sport and teach whatever works is right. This is a stereotypical example of arrogance, where no new rule applies to me unless I agree with it.”

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It’s good that Mission Viejo will get a public airing on whether it’s right or wrong to have doctored a football.

Let Johnson speak. Let McDowell explain whether she took any action against the coaching staff, and if not, why? Let parents speak about what ethical standards they expect from a football coach. Let information come out if the Southern Section misled Mission Viejo.

This is an important issue in ethics that needs clarification so it’s not repeated.

Eric Sondheimer can be reached at eric.sondheimer@latimes.com.

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