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.