Ethics Hero, I Guess: High School Runner Zach Hougland

cross country

Today got an e-mail from an Ethics Alarms participant who hasn’t been by in a while. He commented that he was finding the blog too depressing. Almost immediately after that, another reader sent me this story.

In Iowa, Davis County High School runner Zach Hougland had already won his race, thereby becoming district cross country champion, his school’s first. As he was taking congratulations from his coach and track team mates, he saw another school’s runner stumble and fall, then remain motionless. Hougland rushed back on the track, scooped him up and tried to help him to the finish line.  He said, “It was about 15 meters from the finish line.  I did it for seven meters, so he had about eight left.  I knew I couldn’t help him finish so I just gave him a push and told him ‘You can do it!'”

Hougland kind gesture lost his personal championship, however. He was disqualified for helping a runner, and the runner he helped, Garrett Hinson, was disqualified for accepting help:  Iowa state athletic rules are very clear on both points. Zach was devastated,

“I didn’t want anyone to see me break down because I couldn’t take it, all that work for nothing. But if I could do it all again I wouldn’t change a thing because I did what I thought was right,” the boy said.

He showed great instincts, and an understanding of the Golden Rule. Luckily (remember that word), the rest of the Davis County Mustangs  scored well enough to finish third overall and qualified for state as a team. It is not entirely clear to me that he made the right choice, however. He’s an ethical kid, no doubt about it. I’m not going to criticize him, but as I have written before about similar situation, he had an ethical obligation to his school and team as well. If the other runner appeared to Zach to be in danger and no one was trying to help him, then absolutely he did the correct thing. If, however, he was just helping a rival complete the race, sacrificing the welfare of his team and team mates without their permission, he prioritized his ethical duties incorrectly.

If he was a high school football player and the other team’s half-back was sprinting to the goal line with what would be the game-winning touchdown, then fell just short of the goal line with snapped tibia, writhing in pain, would Zach be praised for dragging the player, hugging the ball, over the line for a touchdown?

That’s not sportsmanship, it’s betrayal. What if Iowa’s rules permitted such help, Hinson crossed the line, and in doing so got just enough points to allow his team to pass Zach’s so the Mustangs didn’t qualify for state. Would he be a hero then?  The fact that this wasn’t the case is just moral luck, after all. Yet by Zach’s ethical compass, this possibility should be irrelevant. His compass, however, is not compatible with sporting ethics, even in high school. One’s first obligation is to win for your team, not to be kind and compassionate to adversaries even at your team’s expense. If Zach were just an individual competitor, the calculus is different. Then helping Hinson is pure altruism.

Ethics points are due to the Iowa High School Athletic Association, which properly resisted the predictable entreaties to give Zach special dispensation.  In a statement, it announced”An athlete who receives or gives assistance to another runner in the same race is disqualified.   While it was a sportsmanlike act to help someone in distress it remained a violation and the official had no choice but to enforce the rule.”

I’ll think I’ll stick with calling Zach an ethics hero. I wonder if he would have been regarded by his team as a hero, however, if his kind act cost it a shot at a championship.


Pointer: Alexander Cheezem


20 thoughts on “Ethics Hero, I Guess: High School Runner Zach Hougland

  1. I will agree that Zach is probably an ethics hero because his action was motivated by sportsmanship. I wonder, though, if he misunderstood the assistance rule. He said, He said, “It was about 15 meters from the finish line. I did it for seven meters, so he had about eight left. I knew I couldn’t help him finish so I just gave him a push and told him ‘You can do it!’ So, he knew he could not help the rival runner finish; did he know that he would be disqualified for helping the runner? Perhaps that is splitting hairs, but he did an honorable thing.


  2. Verbal motivation is not an issue but physical intervention is.

    Dragging the player? Never! You would pick up the ball and finish the play and that is EXACTLY what I did when a teammate went down with a hammy on a beak away. Reality is he just lateraled the ball. Before I scored, however, I got hit and lost a fumble.

  3. Interesting example. Under anything resembling the normal rules of society, he did the right thing. It was a good instinct, and during any sort of practice run or non-competitive run, it would have been good sportsmanlike conduct. But under the artificial rules of competition, he disqualified himself and let down the team, and as you point out, that counts too. I’m assuming he was unaware that what he was doing would disqualify him, or he just didn’t think it through quickly enough, in which case it’s a mistake, but not an ethical one.

    This is where we leave your area of interest (ethics) and enter into mine (policy). Obviously, if a runner receives help from anyone, he should be disqualified from the race, because he’s not completing it under his own power. But there’s something odd about disqualifying the runner who helps him. I guess it’s intended to discourage cheating, and maybe such strictness is necessary (and for all I know there was rampant cheating until the rules were made this strict), but it seems like there’s a useful distinction to be made between helping someone win a race, and helping someone who’s pretty clearly out of the race to get back up and achieve the personal goal of finishing the run, even if it no longer counts officially.

    That seems like the sort of thing high school athletics is intended to encourage, in which case the rules of the sport are out of alignment with the goals of the athletics program. I’m not sure if it makes sense to change the rules over one incident — maybe it’s one of your cases where sometimes an exception is necessary — but when the rules of the sport prohibit an act of good sportsmanship, something’s not quite right.

    • I think it’s exactly opposite. What is odd is disqualifying the one who receives aid, ESPECIALLY if that aid was not solicited.

      How easily then would it be for one of your runners to take a sacrifice and disqualify other runners by going up and giving each a push?

      No, I think it makes perfect sense to disqualify the help-giver.

      The help-receiver, even in cases where aid was not solicited, still did not complete the race on their own, which is what the race measures… so they get the axe also.

  4. For what it’s worth.

    I ran cross country (and track) in high school. Hougland’s obligation was to call for a trainer and alert the other runner’s coaches–maybe. My own coaches told me when I saw a problem I was to take it to them and let them contact the other coaches.

    Cheering the kid on, telling him to get up and finish, that’s cool, that’s even expected in cross country. Physical contact with other runners once you finish is a big no no. No one I know would have done it, they would have known it would lead to both people getting disqualified. They would have considered it unsporting to get someone else disqualified when there was a chance they could still get up and finish.

    • Agreed. Comment of the Day.

      As I read the factual scneario, I thought the kid was going to go over and administer CPR to the other kid who was down. I assumed this was a medical emergency.

    • I ran cross country in high school, too, and cannot remember one way or another whether this a rule or not. We had strict rule about jewelry, so it must have been, although I never recall being told it was a rule. I do remember always asking if someone who tripped deep in the woods was OK. I never ran into (ha) anyone in true distress where it was necessary to drop out to render aid. I don’t think it really occurred to anyone to consider whether it was sportsman like or not to leave someone behind who merely fell. It happened to all of us at some point.

  5. From the wikipedia article on Dorando Pietri:-

    … The effort took its toll and with only two kilometres to go, Pietri began to feel the effects of extreme fatigue and dehydration. When he entered the stadium, he took the wrong path and when umpires redirected him, he fell down for the first time. He got up with their help, in front of 75,000 spectators.

    He fell four more times, and each time the umpires helped him up. In the end, though totally exhausted, he managed to finish the race in first place. Of his total time of 2h 54min 46s, ten minutes were needed for that last 350 metres. Second was American Johnny Hayes. The American team immediately lodged a complaint against the help Pietri received from the umpires. The complaint was accepted and Pietri was disqualified and removed from the final standings of the race.

    Read the rest of the article for the public response.

  6. His motives were excellent, but his actions unwise. There would have been plenty of opportunity for him to have finished the race and gone back to offer his fellow athlete some encouraging words. Wisdom will come with age, however. His might be a name to remember for the future.

  7. I guess if you aren’t an athlete, you have a different perspective on this. If he fell and was motionless, someone should have run to him to see if he needed medical attention. The race is secondary. If he can’t finish the race, he is probably injured, exhausted, or dehydrated. Getting medical attention would seem more important than finishing the race at that point.

  8. First of all if you read most of the news stories the boy was on the ground and one of the coaches said he was actually unconscious.. For anyone to just leave an unconscious person on the ground and run by them or not have anyone go to help is ridiculous.. Zack did look around and ask if anyone was going to help the boy before running back and helping him.. Where was the medical team? Also how many other people had already finished the race by this point? Is the race not over till everyone is across the finish line? I don’t know much about cross country but I would personally argue the point that since Zack had already crossed the finish line the race was technically over for him.

    As for the unconscious boy on the ground… Is it standard practice in cross country races to just leave the fallen racers till the race is over and hope they are still alive by the time someone goes to help them?? I think people are focusing on the wrong issue here. We should be focusing on WHY no one was coming to this high school boys aid. He had collapsed!!

      • Actually, I think giving CPR or lifesaving first aid is a different exception, because the rule doesn’t prohibit saving someone’s life, right? You are not helping a runner finish the race if you are administering 1st Aid. However, this was clearing NOT a lifesaving incident & I doubt that the kid was unconscious, because if so, why would Zack try to help him finish the race. If someone is dying (literally, not figuratively) on the ground, you’re not thinking “get up & finish”, you’re thinking “oh sh*t! he needs CPR!” So intervening to help someone get up & finish the race is an ethical violation (in that it could potentially hurt your team or give an unfair advantage or disadvantage to another team) which is against the rules. If however, Zack had run over to the dying player & administered CPR, he would have been DQ’d (because he is not aiding someone in the race, he is saving their life).

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