It is no exaggeration to suggest that Hereford High School's boys cross country team lost the Baltimore County championship by a thread last weekend. In a decision that only a high school referee -- or perhaps a Spandex salesman -- can fully appreciate, the stitching on an undergarment determined the outcome of a local athletic event.

There's no dispute over the facts of the matter. The Hereford boys team finished first at the county championship with the lowest combined total points (as scored by order of finish). But the victory was denied when the meet referee observed that one of Herford's top runners had a white pinstripe on the side of his compression shorts.

The stripe provided no tactical advantage, of course. It was barely noticeable underneath the runner's uniform, but rules issued by the Indiana-based national federation governing these matters -- and adopted this year by the Maryland Public Secondary Schools Athletic Association -- requires such undergarments to be a solid color.

Might the violation have been overlooked? Officials do not have that discretion, according to state rules. As a bulletin issued last spring by the MPSSAA instructs, "officials do a disservice to the sport and competitors when they set aside rules that apply to illegal uniforms ... because they don't want to be 'too picky.'"

It may be that track events are more prone to heart-breaking moments of seemingly arbitrary rule enforcement than other sports. It's not uncommon for a runner to be disqualified for such seemingly trivial behaviors as stepping on a line or wearing jewelry (even though the one piece of permitted jewelry, a wristwatch, is something that can actually give a participant a tactical advantage). Hereford parents were reportedly able to observe other runners in apparent uniform violation who were not challenged.

Admittedly, this was no life or death event but a high school cross country meet and nothing more. All involved likely had the best of intentions. But it's also fair to wonder, what did the participants from teens to parents, coaches and spectators learn from all this?

The folks at Hereford High are no doubt disappointed. Members of the Towson High team that was ultimately declared the victor are not particularly happy either, according to their coach. (Fortunately, the teams meet again next month at the 3A regional competition and most likely later in November at the state championships).

There are many who can share blame for the incident from the young man who failed to meet the uniform standards to the Hereford coach who might have spotted the runner's transgression earlier.

The various course officials might also have spared much heartache if they'd inspected runners sooner as well. Just one word of caution and the entrant could have simply removed the offending garment, as it's perfectly legal for some runners on the same team to wear compression shorts and others not (uniformity apparently only goes so far).

Still, it's a head-scratching turn of events. What was the rationale behind this particular rule? Did some group of men and women sit at a table somewhere in Indiana and think, "You know what would improve our sport? Getting rid of pinstripes on undergarments." Was this the place to draw the proverbial line, and was it worth changing the outcome of a county championship?

That's an ethical conundrum for which there is no fully satisfactory answer. And perhaps that's the best thing that arises from what happened, a teachable moment for teens and parents everywhere -- and perhaps even inspire a generation of Herefordians into becoming appealate lawyers, a career in which overturning results on technicalities can be a lucrative business, indeed.

Send your comments to talkback@baltimoresun.com.