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.

  • severalspeciesof

    I hope that a video will be forthcoming soon to further clarify this to anyone still thinking this was a religious violation…

  • Rando

    And these facts won’t stop the stories of religious persecution from being spread. If there is one thing that religious people ignore most often, it’s inconvenient facts.

  • http://www.facebook.com/crystalwheel Crystal Bandy Thomas

    Nonetheless, it’s a step in the right direction…

  • Baby_Raptor

    Not that this will stop anyone from screaming persecution. This is the lot who thinks they’re persecuted when complete strangers have the right to marry…Come on now.

  • http://parkandbark.wordpress.com/ Houndentenor

    Too little, too late. the story is out there and will continue to be repeated from pulpits in the right-wing churches for years to come. The correction will not be noted and the story will be elaborated. I’ve seen this happen too many times. Correcting relatives who will forward emails about this will not do any good. *sigh*

  • Glasofruix

    all God has given me and blessed me with, on Saturday, April 27

    You must be so special if th skyfairy helps you to win a race instead of, i don’t know, helping the poor or the ill…

  • Billy Bob

    This is unfortunately true.

  • DougI

    Now sue happy Christian law firms are fuming that their religious rights were violated because now they can’t sue the schools for money.

  • http://twitter.com/docslacker MD

    Read an article about this as well, and one of the parties involved (I think it may have been one of the coaches) said something along the lines of: this is Texas, Christians don’t get persecuted here!
    Such honesty is refreshing.

  • Hat Stealer

    I feel sorry for the kid who was disqualified. It can be easy to caught up in the thrill of victory and do something stupid which you later regret.

    Of course, the fact that he’s treating the situation fairly and honestly does much to increase my sympathy. Were he not, I doubt I’d feel sorry at all. Kudos to him though.

  • vincent findley

    See what these people started, now every time a basketball player pounds his chest after a dunk and points he’ll get a technical, a football player spikes the ball after a td a 15 yd penalty and a baseball player rounding the bases after a home run pointing will be suspended! A thrill of victory thing and they can’t go to the states, Bullshit! Lets all see the video to see if it was excessive, otherwise it was only one other reason why. If a non-theist pumped his or her fist in celebration after an event like that is that excessive and should they be disqualified?

  • Dalidager

    Good for him. I imagine he may have been under a bit of pressure to let the story stand. His Dad initiated the story did he not?

  • Geoff Boulton

    Or helping him win the race knowing that he was going to be disqualified anyway. He’s such a joker, that guy in the sky!

  • Rain

    Doesn’t matter since it’s already out there in the huckster circuit. They have to have stories that bear a tenuous resemblance to reality so they can scare people into giving them money. Otherwise they would have to make an honest living as used car salesmen or game show hosts.

  • tinker

    Yes, that is exactly what they are saying, if a non-theist pumped his or her fist in celebration it would be called for excessive celebration. It sounds like the officials saw more than that though. It would seem that the only reason that they made a stink out of this one is that the kid is Xtian. They have a name for people that imagine they are being persecuted by a minority – paranoid.

  • http://twitter.com/the_ewan Ewan

    “the student athlete raised his hand and gestured forward”

    Shocking excess there. Just shocking.

  • Randay

    This kid seems to have character and to take his own stand on the issue. The future may be bright for him. Without seeing the video, I can’t make a sure decision whether or not this was fair. So far it seems not. Will Usain Bolt now be disqualified for his trademark demonstration after winning?

  • http://www.flickr.com/photos/chidy/ chicago dyke

    it’s a question of fairness and parity. some of these celebrations really are excessive and beyond annoying, not to mention slowing down the game/play. enforcing a rule means enforcing it equally, regardless of the motivation of the rule breaker.

  • decathelite

    Usain Bolt is governed by rules set by the IAAF, which does not ban celebratory gestures. High School track has a different set of rules.

    Having ran and coached high school track, my beef with this rule is that often the kids don’t have it explained to them how serious this rule is enforced, and it’s easy for them to get caught up in celebration. New coaches are especially vulnerable to not communicating this rule.

  • vincent findley

    Hardly that at all tinkerbell. It’s to the point now that if a methane eruption happens during an event they’ll get dq’d. Now some young men can’t go to the states because someone was happy they won a race. You think maybe they might be idolizing their favorite atheletes? Let’s see the video. Either way the kids parents should be making a stink about it. They worked hard all year to get it taken away by a……holes.

  • MsC

    Sounds like the kid’s reaction is what got him DQ’d. If he had just said, “OK” or “Yes, sir,” when he was warned by the official, he wouldn’t have been disqualified. At least he’s taking his lumps with some decency.

  • vincent findley

    Sue happy Christian law firms? Now that’s f…..king hilarious!

  • tinker

    Wow, you see my name and immediately think of a fairy…interesting. Or maybe you simply misread it, I wouldn’t be surprised, after all you Xtians are great at misreading your prized book. It is also strange that you agreed with me yet felt the need to try to insult me.

    Yep, my opinion of Xtians is further cemented.

  • ShoeUnited

    The parents and child didn’t work hard. Didn’t you read the articles? God did it. Nobody gets credit but God for winning the race. The kid’s and parent’s pride in their son is what caused him to get DQ’d.

    Nobody likes it when you use their own religious logic against them. ;_;

  • Mario Strada

    I am sure these guys would find it hilarious too:

    Liberty Counsel

    Becket Fund for Religious liberty

    American center for law and Justice

    American family association Law center

    Christian Legal Society center for law and religious freedom

    Rutheford Institute

    Western center for law and religious freedom

  • Mario Strada

    OK, I am totally speculating here and some of my assumptions could be totally wrong. But here is a scenario:
    The gesture may or may not have been religious, but after the warning the student was disqualified anyway
    Somehow the news was broken by Beitbart.com which is really noit a news outlet but a propaganda center. SOmeone must have told them and my money is on the father.
    After the first day of screams and accusations, my guess is that this being Texas the officials are just as religious and possibly bigoted as the parents here. They went to the parents and told them that there was no discrimination because they are all good Xtians and they (the officials) didn’t want to receive hate mail from their own compadres.
    The family quickly capitulates, possibly with the help of local pastors or other authority figure and even sound rational after a fashion.

    I realize I am engaging in the same speculation sites like Breitbart pass as news, but it seems a bit strange to me that someone making a stink at breitbart one day would become so reasonable overnight.
    Something else is going on.

  • RobMcCune

    If a non-theist pumped his or her fist in celebration after an event like that is that excessive and should they be disqualified?

    If those are the rules, yes. That being said having such strict rules for track events is pretty stupid, and they should probably be changed. The only reason this is “news” is because some christian tried to claim it was religious persecution to not give the kid a free pass.

  • Ray

    Being happy WS when you win a race is now illegal in the US? What a fucked up country.

  • Ray

    No idea where the WS came from.

  • Artor

    I don’t get the joke. Are you denying the existence of such firms? Then you are ignorant and blind.

  • Robster

    Boo and hisses coming from the christian lobby with the loss of a potential new star victim of aggressive secularisation (is there such a word?). They could put him in pretty clothes with a new haircut and roll him out to various churches to raise funds telling his tragic story, get him on the TV, even send him off to the Vatican to meet pope Frank and his VERY friendly crew, they’d like that…a lot. That could’ve been a good earner. Opportunity missed!

  • eric

    That was my reaction too; I hope the NFHS changes their rules to allow that. Raising ones hands, a momentary fist pump or #1 finger – celebratory, yes. But excessive? That seems a bit ridiculous.
    Having said that, sounds like they were right to enforce it in this case and it sounds like the student is taking it maturely.

  • DavidMHart

    I think they were pointing out how odd it would be if there were happy Christian law firms that one could sue, since the Christian law firms we tend to hear about don’t usually seem all that happy. But I could be mistaken.

  • Arianna Founds

    Fucking hell. Rules against celebrating a victory? Can’t even raise your arms up and cheer? What is this shit?