Monday, October 03, 2005

Rick Reilly rips ref

In this article, Rick Reilly of Sports Illustrated lays into a high school football crew from Ohio for a decision to prevent a nose guard with no legs from playing in a game. The officials' reason: the rule book says that all players must wear shoes, knee pads, and thigh pads. (It's short...probably worth reading the whole thing.)

I disagree with the officials' decision. However, they are not solely to blame for this sad situation.

After the game, the Ohio High School Athletic Association, according to Reilly, said the crew made a mistake and sent the player a letter declaring him eligible. Too late! OHSAA should have seen this coming and sent the letter at the start of the year. If that letter is on the sideline from the word go, the player doesn't have to go through this humiliating experience. Analogous situation: In basketball, players are not allowed to wear anything on their heads--unless there is a religious reason. A Muslim (for example) player can play, provided there is a letter of approval from the state association at the ready. They could have done the same in this situation.

The officials' associtation is also at fault here. Any unusual situation outside the purview of the rulebook needs to be talked over in association meetings. This can't be the kid's first season playing football. At the start of every year, take thirty seconds to say it to everyone: "There's a kid at Colonel White High with no legs. He's cleared to play by his doctor and OHSAA. Be ready." That also would have nipped the situation in the bud, and saved the student from this terrible experience.

Let's not forget Colonel White High, who also shares the blame for this incident. The student had clearance from his doctor to play. Even if they don't have a letter from OHSAA, they could at least have had the player's medical clearance letter on the sideline. With that, the officials wouldn't have been able to cite safety as a reason to bench him. The school could have forseen the situation as well.

So there were at least three groups who could have kept the officiating crew from making its blunder. Don't get me wrong: it was a blunder. The spirit of the rule is to protect players. No player--the nose guard or his opponents--is endangered by the nose guard playing without shoes, knee pads, or thigh pads.

Take the closest thing to an analogous situation I can find in basketball. If I show up to the gym and there's a player with an artificial leg, and I believe that artificial leg poses a danger to the other players who might be diving for a loose ball, the kid sits. Yes, it would break her heart, but in this case, the spirit of the rules must carry the day. There is a rule in place to protect players against (for instance) hard knee braces. I'd apply it to artificial limbs as well. If one kid gashes her head open on that leg, I've failed in my job and am likely facing a lawsuit (unless there's a letter from the state association declaring her eligible--in which case, that's the rule I enforce and she plays). On the other hand if a player without legs wants to play basketball, she's not a danger to anyone on the court, so I'll let her play without shoes. The spirit of the rule is upheld in that case.

So, while Reilly's criticism of the officials is warranted, I do wish he'd pointed that the crew's was the last in a long, sad series of failures that led to a good kid being embarrassed.


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