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As a Rule, CIF Is Real Hard-Liner

Recent cases illustrate how the high school sports governing body follows the letter of the law.

May 25, 2005|David Wharton and Dan Arritt | Times Staff Writers

A high school relay team, among the fastest in California, is disqualified from a championship race because one of the runners is wearing different-colored underpants.

In another meet, a triple-jumper has the best performance of her life nullified when the opposing coach notices a thin, beaded cord around her ankle, a violation of a rule prohibiting jewelry. As a result, her team loses, ending a 22-year unbeaten streak.

A baseball team wins its first-round playoff game, 4-0, then must forfeit because its coach, who had been suspended for a game, is seen watching -- but not coaching -- from down the street.

These incidents occurred in Southern California during the last month, the baseball forfeit ending up in a Los Angeles County courtroom Tuesday. In each case, young athletes were penalized for technicalities that had no effect on the competition, raising questions about when enforcing the rules -- especially for kids -- becomes nitpicking.

The California Interscholastic Federation, which governs high school athletics in the state, takes a hard-line approach.

"It can even appear to be a minor or a small point, but ... our obligation is to uphold that as much as, maybe personally, we may not like to," said Jim Staunton, commissioner of the CIF's Southern Section. "Otherwise, there are no rules."

Ethicists agree that it is important for kids to compete fairly, but they wonder if it is appropriate to disqualify athletes or teams for relatively minor infractions.

"The real key is fairness and what message are you trying to send," said Michael Josephson, who heads a nationwide coalition devoted to ethical behavior among youths. "If we are unduly harsh and we don't distinguish between moral misdemeanors and moral felonies, we send the wrong message."

Like other athletic associations, the Southern Section produces a manual -- the so-called "Blue Book" -- covering a multitude of issues pertaining to the sporting events it governs. Some rules are adopted from the National Federation of State High School Associations, others are voted upon by member schools. CIF officials say they don't create the rules, merely enforce them.

This role came under scrutiny last weekend at the Southern Section track championships, after Long Beach Poly's boys' 1,600-meter relay team finished 40 meters ahead of the nearest competition. That's when meet officials declared a rules violation.

Three of the Poly runners wore black compression shorts under their green-and-white uniforms. A fourth, Travon Patterson, wore gray underpants.

"You couldn't see them when he was standing," said Joe Carlson, the school's athletic director. "But when he ran ... once his shorts started flying up, you could see them."

The rules state that relay members must wear identical uniforms and that any visible undergarments must be of the same color.

"That is a common theme across sports," said Bruce Howard, a spokesman for the national federation. "Why? For uniformity's sake."

Not only did the Poly runners have their sectional victory taken away, they cannot compete in the state finals, which will hurt the team's chances of winning an overall championship.

Carlson stopped short of criticizing the ruling, calling it "kind of a weird thing."

CIF officials said there are practical reasons for following the letter of the law. "If we start interpreting every single rule, we would be so bogged down," Southern Section spokesman Thom Simmons said. "It would bring this organization to a standstill."

While the section came under criticism for the Poly ruling, at least one ethicist said there is plenty of blame to go around.

Bruce Weinstein, author of "Life Principles: Feeling Good by Doing Good," said that coaches should know the rules thoroughly and be sure their teams comply. Athletes bear some responsibility too.

"This is a good training ground for adult life," Weinstein said. "As we say, ignorance is no excuse for the law. Those rules may be unfair but when you sign up to participate in a sporting event you are agreeing to the rules. And the time to challenge them is beforehand, not after."

Late last month, the Mission Viejo girls' track and field team was competing against Dana Point Dana Hills in a league dual meet that came down to the final event.

With athletes from both teams gathered around, Chelsea Rinderspacher -- not among the top athletes on her squad -- made the longest triple-jump of her career to finish in third place. Her effort pulled the Diablos into a tie and kept alive a dual-meet unbeaten streak that dated to 1983.

But as the Mission Viejo team celebrated, the Dana Hills coach stepped forward, pointing to Rinderspacher's pink anklet.

"She has this little string, not even as big as a shoe lace, a little thing called a friendship string or something," Mission Viejo Coach Fred Almond said. "Come to find out, she'd worn it for three years and I'd never seen it. It was almost down in her shoe."

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