By Kyle Garratt
Jason Bowman, Head Cross Country Coach at Hereford High School in Parkton, Md., thought he prepared his runners properly for the 2009 Baltimore County championship meet. Through training and instruction, his student-athletes were primed to perform. But he forgot about the Spandex.
An NFHS rule (Rule 9, Section 6, Article 1b) enacted last season states that runners are not allowed to wear visible undergarments that are more than one color. A Hereford runner who finished fourth was wearing black undershorts with white stitching, and the infraction cost the boys' team the county championship.
"I was upset, because you do things 90 percent right to get the kids trained and peaking, then a detail like that comes back to haunt you," says Bowman. "It was the first season with the rule and it usually takes a high-profile case for it to get on the radar. But as a coach, it was something I should have been aware of."
The disqualification of the Hereford runner pushed the team to third place and the trophy was handed to Towson High School. But it did not prevent any Hereford runners from advancing to the regional meet, where Hereford beat Towson.
The disqualification was a perfect storm of occurrences. To start, the rules interpreter who usually informs coaches about rules changes during a preseason meeting was not present last year, Bowman says. And because coaches typically oversee cross country meets themselves during the regular season, the county meet was the first time Hereford had seen an official all year. Even that didn't go as planned.
"It is mandated in the rule book that referees are there to address coaches at the starting line, but I think in our case the referee showed up late because we had an early start time," says Bowman. "He wasn't at the starting line and that would be the best way to circumvent this."
Bowman had 80 athletes running in six races at the meet, so his mind wasn't on stitching. But that's what he had to talk to his team about afterwards.
"As a model for your kids you have to keep a level head about it and say, 'It's my fault, the rules are the rules,'" says Bowman. "We looked at it from the standpoint that we won, and we don't need any validation in the form of a plaque. We know we won, we didn't cheat, and we didn't use any illegal means to our advantage.
"But the whole time you're thinking the rule kind of defeats the spirit of competition," he continues. "To try to explain that rules are rules to adolescents who have a very keen sense of fairness and what they feel is right was definitely hard."
Bowman is now making sure his team creates headlines only for running. "We've implemented a ritual with our athletes where they bring in any undergarments they are going to wear at the beginning of the season so we can scrutinize them," he says. "We also have something in our athletes' contracts that says they will buy only what is allowed for competition.
"My suggestion to other coaches is to establish a protocol for your athletes," Bowman continues. "Check their garments the day before the season starts."
In the end, Bowman tried to use the incident as a learning opportunity for both himself and his student-athletes. "The good side of it is our kids got to learn a lesson about attention to detail, and I certainly did, too," he says. "I'll make sure it doesn't happen again--it's hard as a coach to carry the burden of knowing you could have prevented a disqualification."
Kyle Garratt is a former Assistant Editor at Athletic Management.