Copyright © 2010 by Ralph Couey
The Kahuku High School football team will not be allowed to compete in the Oahu Interscholastic Association championship game, this despite going undefeated and ranking number one in the Honolulu Star-Advertiser Island-wide poll. One of their players was ruled ineligible, so the team, according to OIA rules, must forfeit the games the ineligible player participated in. .
“Wot, boddah you?” you inevitably ask. I live in Pennsylvania, fully 5,000 miles and at least two climatological planets distant from Hawai’i. Even though my wife is Waipahu class of ’72, we admittedly don’t have a dog in this fight. And yet, this story touches me.
I’m not a lawyer, although I did stay at a Holiday Inn Express. But I’ve been around enough to understand that the application of law consists of two parts: the letter and the spirit.
The letter part is what’s actually written; “Just the facts, ma’am,” if you will. Those words describe in exactingly excruciating detail the conditions under which the law is applied, exclusionary contingency language, and the penalties of any violations. The lawyer-speak in which it is written is painfully dry and a sure-fire cure for insomnia.
Then there’s what’s called “the spirit of the law.” This is the reason why the law was adopted in the first place. These concepts wedded together ensure that when the law is applied, it is done so in a way that makes sense.
Athletic eligibility rules are usually the easiest to understand. Players have to maintain a minimum grade point average, because schools exist primarily to educate students and ensures that coaches and administrators keep their priorities straight. Those rules also control the number of years that a particular player can participate. This makes sense. You don’t want rosters to be made up of hulking 20-year-old ne’er-do-wells in their third try at 11th grade. But this rule is what tripped up the unfortunate Red Raider.
According to the back story, this student was “erroneously promoted to the ninth grade in 2006.” Digging a little deeper, I discover that his promotion was not an attempt by him to commit fraud, but the silly error by some as-yet-to-be identified clerk. Once the error was discovered, the student was quickly returned to the eighth grade.
But here’s the rub.
Because he was a 9th grader, even for a fortnight, that counts as an entire year of eligibility. In this case, it took four long years for someone to figure that out.
I know things move a bit slower in Paradise, but as ESPN might say, “C’mon, man!”
Here’s where the letter and the spirit of the law clash.
The original intent of the rule was to prevent a team from gaining an unfair competitive advantage. He wasn’t brought on the team for any competitive advantage. It’s not like they hired Timmy Chang with glue-on pimples. He is a reserve player who struggled with his academics. His playing was limited and there’s no indication that his actions altered the outcome of any of the games. He didn’t lie about his eligibility. He was probably told by his coaches and principals, those responsible for explaining rules that he could play. Why would he doubt them?
The real villain of this drama is not the student, or his team, but the careless secretary. If you have to punish someone, I suggest banning her from the secretaries intramural powder puff league. Don’t inflict that error on a kid who was just doing what he was told by people who should have known better.
The Kahuku Red Raiders gathered on the hot practice field last summer. They worked hard, bonding together, and crafting a shared goal: To be the best. But despite that success, despite their monumental accomplishments, their dream has been snuffed out, not by a better team, but by an administrative ruling.
Talk about an unfair competitive advantage.
What will the Red Raiders take from this experience? What have they learned about the game of life? Have they been taught that it doesn’t matter how hard you work, or how much you achieve? Perhaps they feel now that there’ll always be a person somewhere to take it all away; someone who never sweated through those summer practices, or felt the blow of a charging linebacker.
I hope that the OIA hasn’t inadvertently taught another generation of Hawai’ian youth that hard work and success is useless without a good lawyer.