Pine Tar Redux: the Pole Vaulter, the Bracelet, and Technicalities

Sports Illustrated is crying foul over the story of a female high school pole vaulter whose jump in the final event had apparently won the meet and the league championship for her team  until the opposing coach called a rules infraction:  she was wearing a friendship bracelet, which was prohibited, and according to the rule book, grounds for disqualification.

SI says this is bad sportsmanship. Nonsense. Enforcing the rules of a sport cannot be poor sportsmanship. The objective is to win within the rules. A team that wins without following the rules cannot claim that “good sportsmanship” requires that the rules be ignored for its benefit. Would Sports Illustrated really take the same position in a male competition? I wonder. There is still a regrettable tendency in the male-dominated sports media to infantilize women’s sports to the level of T-ball.

Here’s the story: On April 29, in South Pasadena, California, the visiting girls track and field team from Monrovia High was seeking its first-ever Rio Hondo League title against longtime powerhouse South Pasadena High. The teams were separated by a few points with only the pole vault remaining. Monrovia needed a second-place finish in the pole vault to win the day and the league title. It all came down to the final jump by South Pasadena’s best vaulter, Robin Laird, who cleared the bar to give her team an apparent victory. Then Monrovia coach Mike Knowles pointed to his wrist and pointed at  Laird. She was wearing a thin bracelet, and it violated the rules.

Section 3, Article 3 of the National Federation of State High School Associations reads, “Jewelry shall not be worn by contestants.” The penalty is specified: disqualification. With Laird’s jump null and void, Monrovia had won the championship.

Laird collapsed in tears. The South Pasadena coach P.J. Hernandez pointedly asked Knowles if he “really wanted” to win this way, as if he had allowed his team to cheat. The better question should be put to Hernandez: “Why didn’t you know the rules of your sport? And why did you let your athletes violate them?”

In 1983, Kansas City Royals star George Brett hit a game-winning home run against the New York Yankees, only to have it disqualified after Yankee manager Billy Martin pointed out to the umpires that Brett’s bat violated the rules by having pine tar more than 18 inches from the end. The episode caused an uproar, and the American League President, Lee MacPhail—wrongly, I think–overruled the umpires and ordered the game replayed from the point of the home run–hit with an illegal bat, under the rules— which now counted.

He, like Sports Illustrated now, was reacting to the problem of technicalities, those little details that dwell in all rules and that often seem to have disproportionate effects on things.  Technicalities set murderers free. Technicalities make policies malfunction. Technicalities make space shuttles explode. Going a couple of miles over the speed limit on an empty street is a technicality. Being a day late paying your insurance is a technicality. They always seem unfair when they are enforced, but technicalities are not unfair, unless they are hidden is some way. The ban on bracelets wasn’t hidden. It was right in the rule book.

It is not unfair for the enforcement of a rule to lose South Pasadena a championship. It would be unfair for Monrovia, which followed all the rules, to be beaten by a team that couldn’t be bothered to read or follow them. The jewelry had nothing to do with the competition, you say? Wrong. By definition it had something to so with it: it was a rule that could lead to disqualification. The sport’s organizing body declared that only women could participate in this meet, and only poles of a certain height and composition could be used, and that athletes wearing jewelry were not allowed. They are all rules. The teams cannot pick and choose which ones they think are worth following, and then cry “Bad sportsmanship!” when enforcing all the rules brings them defeat.

School sports are supposed to teach life lessons, and the lessons that all the rules matter, and that technicalities can destroy you, are among the most valuable lessons imaginable.

Would it have been kind, generous and exemplary had Monrovia waived enforcement of the rule, in the spirit of “may the best team win”? Sure. Would that have been sportsmanlike, and in the spirit of amateur competition? Absolutely. But it is not unsportsmanlike to follow the rules, nor does it justify condemnation of the coach whose team didn’t do anything that violated any of the rules, technicalities or not.

8 thoughts on “Pine Tar Redux: the Pole Vaulter, the Bracelet, and Technicalities

  1. I’m surprised you skipped right over the real ethical issue here. There are different types of rules in sports for different reasons – integrity of the game, level playing field, safety, watchability, etc. The only conceivable reason for a rule banning participants from wearing jewelry is safety. If a bracelet or any piece of jewelry gets caught on something, the athlete could be seriously injured. All of the coaches and referees involved were being negligent by letting this athlete compete. If the opposing coach is telling the truth and really didn’t notice until after the jump, fine. But if he was like Billy Martin, made an observation and kept it in his pocket until it could be useful, then he’s just flat out dispicable.

    • Great point, Gene. I didn’t want to get into that, because it suggests that that the rule shouldn’t have been applied here since the non-metallic friendship bracelet isn’t really likely to be dangerous. But then. who knows? Best practice is no jewelry at all. And safety is a legitimate reason to have “technicalities” with teeth.

  2. I’ve always thought the “no jewelry” rule in many amateur and recreational sports leagues is odd, given that baseball players come to plate wearing pounds of jewelry around their necks. Once, I was told to remove beads tightly braided into my hair, another friend was told to remove an earring post, but other times the “no jewelry” rule is disregarded. It would be interesting to know if she would have been disqualified if they didn’t win. I think there’s another ethical question in how the rule is enforced; whether it’s been enforced in the past or ignored.

    • The Billy Martin case was mentioned especially in this context, which I should have clarified. He had known about Brett’s bat for a long time, and just waited until an advantageous time to use it. Is this fair? As a lawyer, you know that you can hold some objections until they are especially devastating. It isn’t the other coach’s job to enforce the rules, but the refs.

      From the accounts, I’m sure the other coach wouldn’t have bothered with the complaint if his team would have won anyway or was already hopelessly behind. Does that matter? If he would have chosen to waive the rule infraction if nothing was at stake, how does that change the ethics of what he actually did? He called the rule to win, because the existence of the rule gave him that as a legitimate option. Why do so many people think it was wrong to use that option to benefit his team?

  3. The best point of that is that Monrovia COULD have waived their objection, as the rule had little significance in the context of the event. But they were within their rights. AND… the rule is there for the safety of the participants. It was a hard lesson for the young lady, certainly. But the responsibility (since she was a minor) rests on the coach, who should have made certain that the rules were being followed by his athletes.

  4. If I were the coach of Monrovia, I would have waived it. I hope. But you have a squad looking for its first title, being beat by a competitor who, according to the rules, should be disqualified. It would be a tough call.

  5. The first question that came to my mind is whether string is considered jewelry? Would a sweatband be jewelry?

    As for rule enforcement, I think it should have been the referees in the sport to notice and enforce. When the opposing coach calls out the violation…after the person won…on a rule that gave her no advantage I have to cry foul. Even if he truly did not notice until after the event it was a classless move.

    As for George Brett…read more closely. The pine tar rule said to confiscate the bat. It did not say anything about calling the batter out. Martin pressured the rookie umpire to call him out on a rule that I am sure umpire was unfamiliar with. Reversing the call was more a statement to all coaches in the league that they are not the ones who enforce the rules.

    • Rules are rules. The rule that disqualified the girl was badly written and conceived, but it was also clear as to the remedy for violation. Personally, I would not have flagged the rule, but I don’t think it was objectively unethical for the coach to do so.

      The Brett case is much clearer. A home run hit with an illegal bat is an illegal home run—if not, there is no disincentive not to just keep using an illegal bat until you are caught. The umpires had the rule book, read it, and made a judgment call, since the rule didn’t specify what happens when an illegal bat is discovered right after it is used to win the game. I think the umpires made a defensible call, and that MLB was wrong to reverse it. And I detested Bill Martin, and STILL detest the Yankees.

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