A rule is a rule, and it must be enforced. That's the word from state and national high school officials regarding the disqualification of a Hereford runner for a uniform violation at Monday's Baltimore County cross country championships.
The infraction, which related to the color of the stitching of the runner's undershorts, cost Hereford the boys team title. It also raised questions about the relevance of high school athletic regulations that appear to have no obvious effect on the competition itself.
"The [uniform] rule has no bearing on the race, but it's in the book - which makes it one of the regulations that we have to follow," said Steve Smith, the Maryland Public Secondary Schools Athletic Association interpreter for the National Federation of Track and Cross Country Rules.
At the county meet, it was Smith who made the decision to disqualify the Hereford runner (who had finished fourth), as well as seven others from competing teams, for uniform violations that are clearly defined in guidelines that are distributed to schools before the season.
Moreover, Smith said, before the race, he and other officials spotted a number of runners with uniform violations who changed immediately to pass muster.
"Practically the whole Kenwood team was out of compliance, but they got legal before the race," Smith said. "We try to prevent such situations."
The Hereford runner's outfit would have been OK a year ago, said Becky Oakes, assistant director of the National Federation of State High School Associations in Indianapolis. But the NFHS then voted to bar runners from wearing visible undergarments of more than one color.
The athlete's Spandex undershorts were black, with white stitching.
Oakes defended the new ruling, saying that conformity among team members is paramount.
"Your cross country uniform is supposed to say that 'I'm from high school XYZ,' " she said. "Philosophically, that's what 'team' is all about.
"The [multicolored] Spandex undergarment began to get away from that."
There has been no backlash from the mandate, which took effect this fall, Oakes said.
"We've not had a lot of calls on this one. Most schools have conveyed the rule to their kids," she said.
At Towson, which won the boys team championship Monday, there was sympathy for Hereford.
"But the rule is clearly stated," Towson coach Ed Faya said. "We hound the kids on this, and it's really inexcusable."
At Towson, the coach meets with his squad in August to discuss rules and choose a team uniform. Runners are told there are no dress exceptions.
Still, said Faya, "as a coach, you kind of hold your breath."
Faya has coached cross country for 15 years. Jason Bowman, the Hereford coach, has been at it for 12.
"Ultimately, the burden [of the disqualification] comes down on us as coaches," Bowman said. "Usually, we're extremely militant, but [on race day] there's a thousand things going through coaches' minds, and this was just one of those unfortunate circumstances."
It won't happen again, said Bowman, who vowed to "revisit the rules."
Before regionals Friday, the Hereford coach said, "We'll have all the kids bring in everything they are wearing two days before the race and thoroughly check it. Then we'll check it again at the line."
The incident cost Hereford a trophy, but the team still gained from it, the coach said.
"Sports is a microcosm of life. It provides an opportunity to teach all kinds of lessons, some more noble than others. This is a lesson like any other," Bowman said.
"It certainly has been for me."
The 'uniform' rule From the National Federation of State High School Associations rule book:
"Items displaying seams stitched on the outside of the garment in a visible contrasting color to the undergarment will be illegal beginning with the 2009-10 school year."