May 6, 2013 by Nathaniel Tower
As a high school track and field coach, I have witnessed many athletes disqualified for a great number of violations. False starts, jewelry, uniform infractions, exchange zone infractions, unsporting conduct. The list goes on.
This past year, I had two athletes disqualified in the same meet for wearing thin pieces of rubber around their wrists. They were disqualified before they even participated.
And they should have been. That’s what the rules state. The rules also state that it is the coach’s ultimate responsibility to ensure that athletes act within the rules. When my athletes were disqualified for the aforementioned infraction, I apologized to them and told them there were plenty of other races. Both survived the incident even though they were crushed at the time.
As a coach, it is not my duty to evaluate the rules. It is simply my duty to teach them to the kids and do my best to make sure they follow them.
Last night, I read an article on Yahoo! Sports news about a 4×100 relay team being “banned” from the state championship. When I saw the headline, I was especially curious, for the article claimed they were “banned for an act of faith.”
Here’s a summary: the anchor leg of the 4×100 team pointed a finger up after running a particularly fast split. The officials conferred and decided to disqualify the team, effectively “banning” them from competing at state. Since this was the qualifying meet, they will not be allowed to participate in that event at state.
Of course everyone is in an uproar because this is a “clear” violation of religious freedom. After all, as the article states, the boy was honoring God with his gesture.
Unfortunately, the clearly slanted article does not provide video or photographic evidence of the event, nor does it actually explain when the finger point took place. Was it as he was finishing? Was it after he finished? Was it for the last twenty meters of the race?
I once witnessed an athlete remove his hip number, put it on his chest, pound his chest, and high step the last twenty meters while staring down one of my athletes. That boy was disqualified. Would anyone cry foul if Yahoo! Sports has written about that?
We, as the reader, have been left in the dark so that Yahoo! can boost its readership. Yahoo! didn’t write about the chest pounder because there’s no controversy. Given the opportunity to talk about how high school officials are taking away religious rights, Yahoo! jumped all over it. However, we don’t know the facts of the situation. For the thousands of people decrying the officials responsible for the disqualification, I need to tell you that your anger is not justified.
The athletes were disqualified for making a gesture. Not for making a religious gesture.
Let’s step back for a second and think about this from the point of view of the officials. According to the rulebook, excessive celebration, which is an automatic disqualification, includes finger gestures. From a completely objective point of view, the officials did the right thing. The athlete made a finger gesture. He was then subject to the rules, just as my athlete wearing a ponytail holder on her wrist was subject to the rules.
This has nothing to do with religious freedom. It’s simply about enforcing the rules as they are written. No matter what we may feel about those rules, we cannot declare the officials as evil. Their duty is to enforce those rules. The coach’s duty is to make those rules known. The athletes duty is to follow the rules.
Unfortunately, this violation took place at the worst time.
I’m not saying that I don’t feel bad for the kids. I do. I wish they could participate in the state meet, especially if they earned that spot through their performance. It’s a shame that the rules we have in place in track and field often don’t promote participation. After all, these are high school athletes. The purpose of high school athletes is to get the kids to participate and act in a sporting matter.
Now, is raising a finger really unsporting? Well, it would help in our judgment to actually see the finger raising gesture, but Yahoo! won’t give us that option. As it’s described in the article, the act seems rather genial. And it probably was. But here’s the deal: how is an official to determine which finger gestures are religious and which finger gestures are an insult to the competition or an act of gloating? The easy answer is to make all finger gestures illegal, as the rulebook does.
I think this is a very unfortunate situation, but the problem is not with the officials. Those expressing their hatred of the officials are guilty of slandering innocent people. The officials acted within the rules. The boy on the 4×100, no matter his intention, did not. The sad truth is that he should have been disqualified, and he was.
I know this is not a popular opinion, but unfortunately most people’s opinions in this matter are fueled by the emotion fostered by a biased article. If we had all of the facts, maybe we could rightfully come to a judgment. Without them, all we have to go on is what a sports blogger tells us to feel.
It’s okay to be upset with the rules, but it’s not okay to be upset with the judgment here. And for those upset with the rules, just remember the purpose of high school sports.
Maybe the people making the rules should think about that purpose as well.
Update: Here is the official statement from the UIL, the organization that oversees Texas sports:
At the Region IV Conference 3A Track & Field regional meet held on Saturday, April 27 at Texas A&M Kingsville, a relay team from Columbus High School was disqualified by local meet officials for an unsporting act at the conclusion of the boys 4 x100 meter relay.
The meet official indicated the athlete crossed the finish line and gestured upward with his arm and finger and behaved disrespectfully toward meet officials, in their opinion. In the judgment of the official, this was a violation of NFHS track & field rule 4-6-1. The regional meet referee concurred with this decision and the student was subsequently disqualified. There is no indication that the decision was made because of any religious expression. This was a judgment call, as are many decisions of meet officials in all activities.
According to NFHS rules, once the meet is concluded, the results become final. Neither the UIL nor NFHS have rules that prohibit religious expression.
The UIL takes situations such as these very seriously, and is continuing to investigate the matter fully.
Edit #2: Yahoo! has explored the issue more thoroughly and released this article.