Even the Student Athlete Punished for His ‘Gesture to God’ Now Says His Religious Freedom Wasn’t Violated

A few days ago, I posted about Columbus High School athlete Derrick Hayes, who ran the anchor leg for his track team’s 4 x 100-meter relay. His relay team’s time would have qualified them for the state tournament… but then something wacky happened:

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.

A lot of Christian and mainstream sites argued that this could have been tantamount to religious discrimination. All he did was thank God! Why was he punished for that?! (Keep in mind that there was no video released to the public of this display or the aftermath.)

It was a bit more complicated than that, though. The University Interscholastic League (UIL), which runs the state track meet, even said as much after the tournament:

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.

So the UIL’s argument was that it had nothing to do with religion and everything to do with excessive celebration and disrespect shown to officials.

Now that a lot of the initial furor has died down, the UIL has investigated the situation even further, talking to eyewitnesses and looking at video. Yesterday, they released the results of their investigation. In short, religion still had nothing to do with it:

… The UIL has concluded the investigation and has found no evidence to suggest that the disqualification took place as a result of the student-athlete expressing religious beliefs. The basis for the disqualification was due to the student-athlete behaving disrespectfully, in the opinion of the local meet referee.

Based on the UIL’s investigation, the student athlete raised his hand and gestured forward at the conclusion of the 4×100-meter relay. The meet official approached the student-athlete in an effort to warn him of a possible disqualification should that behavior continue. In the opinion of the official, the student reacted disrespectfully. Based on his reaction, the student-athlete was subsequently disqualified. Any decision to disqualify a student-athlete at any track meet must be upheld by the head meet referee. The meet official and the meet referee conferred, and the disqualification was upheld on-site. At no point during the discussions surrounding the disqualification at the meet was the issue of religious expression raised by any parties.

The UIL’s investigation also revealed that all coaches involved were notified prior to the regional meet that any gestures in violation of the National Federation of State High School Associations track and field rule against unsporting behavior would be grounds for disqualification. Coaches were instructed to discuss this with their student-athletes prior to all races.

Furthermore, even Derrick Hayes and his family made clear that his actions, not his faith, were the reason for his disqualification:

To assist the UIL in its investigation, the student-athlete’s parents submitted a letter stating that their son’s religious freedoms were not violated. “In looking back at the conclusion of the 4×100 race, we realize that Derrick could have handled the win in a different manner,” KC and Stacey Hayes said in the letter. “It was not our intention to force the issue that our son’s religious freedom was violated. Nor do we feel that way now. After discussing this with our son, we have come to the conclusion that his religious rights were not violated.”

The student-athlete who was disqualified also submitted a letter during the investigation stating: “Although I am very thankful for all God has given me and blessed me with, on Saturday, April 27, 2013 at the Regional Track Meet in Kingsville, TX, my actions upon winning the 4×100 relay were strictly the thrill of victory. With this being said, I do not feel my religious rights or freedoms were violated.

Good for Derrick for taking the hit for what he did and not giving in to the hype about being punished for his faith.

The UIL added that they would work over the summer on clarifying the unsportsmanlike conduct rule.

(Thanks to Ian for the link!)

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.


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