Is a High School Athlete’s Gesture to God Worth a Disqualification?

Columbus High School athlete Derrick Hayes ran the anchor leg for his track team’s 4 x 100-meter relay. Last week, he helped win the race that would have qualified his team for the state tournament… but tournament officials said he broke the rules and wouldn’t be allowed to move on.

His violation?

As Hayes crossed the finish line in first, he “put his hand by his ear and just pointed to the heavens,” Hayes’ father said.

Officials ruled that the gesture violated a state scholastic rule against excessive celebration, which includes raising one’s hands. The team was disqualified, and barred from competing at the state championships.

Totally unfortunate. Not a way you want to end your season. Hayes probably knew the rules but didn’t think his display was excessive (hell, professional athletes do it when they score a few points, much less win a game). I haven’t seen any video of his gesture, so it’s hard to say how “excessive” it really was, but let’s assume it was clearly a violation.

Let’s get one thing straight: It wasn’t religious discrimination. They didn’t punish him for being Christian, like news reports are suggesting. They punished him for making a celebratory gesture, period.

The University Interscholastic League, which runs the state track meet, made this clear in their official statement:

The meet official indicated the athlete crossed the finish line and gestured upward with his arm and finger and behaved disrespectfully toward meet officials, in their opinion. In the judgment of the official, this was a violation of NFHS track & field rule 4-6-1. The regional meet referee concurred with this decision and the student was subsequently disqualified. There is no indication that the decision was made because of any religious expression. This was a judgment call, as are many decisions of meet officials in all activities.

According to NFHS rules, once the meet is concluded, the results become final. Neither the UIL nor NFHS have rules that prohibit religious expression.

Based on the rules, which don’t say anything about “excessive celebration,” it seems like the punishment may have been less about the gesture and more about a possible overreaction to getting called out on it.

What the state needs to do is modify its policy and clarify what is and isn’t allowed. Based on the current rulebook, it’s hard to tell that a religious gesture wouldn’t be allowed. The rule is vague and such an important call should be as non-subjective as possible.

Or I suppose they could just tell kids not to have any fun at all after a victory… Believe it or not, there’s a difference between a victory celebration and bad sportsmanship.

Give this story a couple days, though. You’ll see conservative websites using it as evidence that the world is turning against Christianity.

About Hemant Mehta

Hemant Mehta is the editor of Friendly Atheist, appears on the Atheist Voice channel on YouTube, and co-hosts the uniquely-named Friendly Atheist Podcast. You can read much more about him here.