Blog: December 6, 2010

Penalized for High Praise

By Kenny Berkowitz

Reaching the end zone after a 23-yard touchdown run, Tumwater (Wash.) High School running back Ronnie Hastie took a knee and pointed his index finger toward the sky. As Hastie stood up, the referee threw a penalty flag for unsportsmanlike conduct. Controversy ensued.

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A video of the incident started circulating on the Internet last week, prompting hundreds of thousands of hits, and heated discussions among fans, players, coaches, and officials about religion's place in athletics and who should legislate what is and isn't permissible on the field of play. So, we're wondering: what is the right call in this situation and others involving religious displays?

According to one passage in the NFHS football rulebook, it's illegal to commit "any delayed, excessive, or prolonged act by which a player attempts to focus attention upon himself." According to another, unsportsmanlike conduct includes "bringing attention to one's self through choreographed movements and displays of symbolic gestures and signs."

By those definitions, Tumwater Head Coach Sid Otton believes the referee's call was correct.

"If it's a rule and they made it, then I agree with it," he told FOX News.

But in the absence of an official NFHS interpretation, the rules committee's intention isn't completely clear. Should a two-second kneel-down be considered excessive? Should pointing upward be considered a symbolic gesture? How should officials determine whether an athlete has deliberately attempted to focus attention upon himself?

Talking to MyNorthwest.com, Hastie explained he was simply giving credit to Jesus Christ, as he's done after every other touchdown he scored this season without drawing a penalty.

"I'm trying to give Him honor instead of myself," he said. "It's something I've done because I feel real blessed when I get in the end zone. Jesus is the number one thing in my life. He's given me the ability to play football and be on this great team. I feel it's right to give back the credit where it's due."

Without expressing an opinion on the referee's decision, Mike Colbrese, Executive Director of the Washington Interscholastic Activities Association (WIAA), emphasized the importance of immediately returning the ball to play. "

The point is to make sure the game goes on, and that something that happens after a score or after a spectacular play doesn't slow down play itself," he told KOMO-TV.

On the NFHS Forum, comments have been more direct. "Dumb," wrote one poster, criticizing the call. "Personally, I think the kid should be told to move his prayer to his sideline," wrote another.

"When you see all the things that happen on a football field and you think this is excessive, then you are not using a lot of common sense," wrote a third. "Even experienced officials do not always have common sense. And if this is illegal, then we need to flag a heck of a lot more."

Kenny Berkowitz is an Assistant Editor at Athletic Management.

Athletic Management wants to hear feedback from our readers on this sensitive subject. We want to know:
What do athletic directors think about this situation?
What should ADs tell their coaches about expressions of faith?
Should coaches talk to their players about the ramifications of bringing religion into the sports arena?

FEEDBACK:

Concerning the penalty flagging of a football player taking a knee and pointing to the sky:

1. The rule is unclear.

2. In regards to returning the ball to play....I doubt the young man used more time than those who jump and chest butt in a group or skip out of the end zone after a score.

3. To me it appears to be an act of humility and placing personal perspective on the accomplishment of the touchdown. I see no harm. I think attorneys would have a great time debating whether he was calling attention to himself. I would not want any part of that argument. I deal with so many outrageous ego's from parents and kids in our inner city environment, that an act such as this young man committed would be refreshing.

4. As to the religious aspect, many baseball players take time to administer the sign of the cross to themselves before entering the batter's box. Others point to the sky after reaching base on a hit or after hitting a home run. I know of at least one former major leaguer who chanted Buddhist mantras when going to bat. Self-generated, very brief, personal religious observances are best left alone. What is illegal (unconstitutional) is when coaches or team chaplains lead high school prayer before games or at halftime.

5. In the grand scheme of things, the real question is, "Was the game harmed or disrespected or even really delayed?" If not, use common sense and ignore the situation. There are real issues of which to be observant.

- Kirby L. Whitacre, Director of Athletics, South Bend Community Schools

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Running back Ronnie Hastie is a victim of the unsportsmanlike garbage that's allowed to go on after touchdowns in NFL games. His innocent gesture, though against NFHS rules, was not intended to be excessive, nor designed to draw attention to himself over his team as are most of the gyrations performed by pro football players after a score. The fact
remains, however, that his gesture was in violation of the rules and required to be penalized by the officials of that contest. Why Ronnie's gesture wasn't penalized earlier in the season after a touchdown is a question that the WIAA needs to address next year with their association's football officials.

As athletic administrators, we need to support the rules of the game and calls of officials, but our jobs would be a lot easier regarding this type of issue if professional athletes would begin seeing themselves a little more as role models and less as entertainers.

- Tim Slauter, CMAA, Director of Athletics at McCutcheon High School in Lafayette, Ind.

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Everyone recognizes the importance and need for rules in athletic contests. They exist to maintain order, control, and fairness, to prevent injuries, to promote sportsmanship and to ensure the integrity of the game.

With regard to the call involving Ronnie Hastie of Tumwater High School, Mike Colbrese, Executive Director of the Washington Interscholastic Activities Association, clearly stated the rule and its objective. While this is the politically correct and carefully crafted explanation, you would hope that a little common sense had been applied to the interpretation and application of the rule.

Certainly there is an argument that can be made that officials have no leeway and all that they can do is enforce the rules that exist. However, the following questions arise from this situation.

1. A quick knee and pointing to the sky, how much time elapsed? Was this excessive and did it alter the speed of the game? By all means, let's step in and prevent excessive celebrations and taunting that can humiliate the opponents. This wasn't an obnoxious display, it was a quick, spontaneous incident.

2. Where is the consistency of officiating? If Ronnie Hastie had done this after every other touchdown throughout the season, why didn't other officials make the same call? This certainly doesn't reflect well on the understanding and implementation of the rules by the officials of that particular board. If even one official cautioned Ronnie Hastie earlier in the season, this wouldn't even have become an issue.

In addition, if an official had pulled Tumwater's coach aside and pointed out this violation, it would have been addressed and corrected at that earlier point in the season. Good officiating should involve compassion, education and "preventive measures." This could have and should have been done during the first game in which Hastie scored a TD.

3. If a two-second kneel-down and pointing to the sky by Hastie is excessive and drawing attention to himself, then what about players thumping their chest after every tackle in a game or pointing to the scoreboard. There are so many other things that aren't enforced in any sport that should be, let's clean all of those up before jumping on something that is not humiliating to the opponent and clearly was a quick, innocent act.

4. Certainly, coaches also have the obligation to understand and educate their athletes about the rules of their sport and what to do to comply with them.
In many states, all coaches are required to attend rules interpretation meetings. If the commissioner or rules interpreter who was conducting the meeting had highlighted and reviewed this rule, the coach would perhaps have had a better understanding and would have been able to set the standard for Hastie and his other athletes.

5. In light of this unfortunate situation, hopefully the Tumwater or another coach will forward a suggestion to the NFHS Football Rules Committee to try to reword or add better clarification to the rule so that this can be avoided in the future. Participation in high school athletics should be education-based and hopefully the intent of the rule can be maintained but also provide better clarification for compassionate application.

If you believe that something good comes from every situation, let's use this example so that it does not occur again. Everyone from the officials, coaches, athletes, rules committee members, the press - everyone plays a part in this. It is important that we all continually work to make athletic participation the best possible experience while maintaining the integrity of the game, fairness, but let's not forget common sense and preventive measures.

- Dr. David Hoch, CMAA

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As a high school coach for the past 12 years, I have come to realize that the rules for all sports are in a gray area and require interpretation with the hope that nothing like this ever happens. And when it does, there will be a knee-jerk reaction to change the rule and all coaches, officials and hopefully the athletes will be required to change to accommodate the few that can't handle controversy.

Was the penalty correct, probably based on the exact written explanation of the rule. But I have to ask, how many times did this official throw the flag for celebrations or acts of individualism? Is this the only one? Why this one? Who is actually drawing attention to themselves? In my opinion it's the official. It actually delayed the game longer to throw the flag, call the penalty and mark off the yardage than the so called individual act.

What I see here is a rule that takes the "spirit" out of the game, while the "spirit" of the rule was ignored. I understand the need for the penalty and I understand after 12 years of coaching and officiating that judgment has to be a part of it and you have to live with that at the end of the day. But consistency is what the coaches and players are after. It happens at the highest levels and you have to deal with it. For example, Ohio State was flagged several times for making the O with their gloves after touchdowns and later that same day Oregon did it several times without flags. Consistency!

I say let them have a little more fun and use better judgment. After all, it is a game, it is supposed to be fun!

- Corrie Feldman