"I have always found that mercy bears richer fruits than strict justice."
Let's start this difficult conversation by establishing one very important reality: Life isn't fair.
In fact, it's inherently unfair.
And as difficult as that is for us to accept at times, it's a much more difficult concept to teach. Explaining to someone else that life's injustices are actually opportunities and blessings makes one seem like an insensitive jerk.
Also, if we just accepted life's inequities, we'd never change unjust situations. Our innate response to unfairness is to protest.
Sometimes that is helpful, and sometimes that is crippling.
In the wake of a decision regarding the top two 4A football teams' use of ineligible players, I thought answering a few key questions would be helpful in analyzing if this is a situation that requires protest, or if it's simply one of those situations that allows us the chance to take a path we never would have chosen for ourselves.
1. Did East and Timpview violate any rules of the Utah High School Activities Association?
2. What rule was violated and how?
In both cases, East and Timpview violated the eligibility rule by playing an ineligible player in a contest. Timpview played one ineligible player in four contests, while East used four ineligible athletes, one of which played in every game except one.
3. Who was at fault in violating the rules?
This is more complicated than it seems, as different schools determine eligibility differently. But under the UHSAA rules, principals are charged with the responsibility of deciding who is or isn't eligible and submitting that list to the UHSAA.
"This list must be certified by the principal and submitted to the UHSAA prior to or as per established dates," the UHSAA handbook states. "In doing so, the principal is certifying that those students whose names are listed meet all of the requirements and are eligible under the Constitution and By-Laws of this Association."
4. What do the rules provide as a punishment or remedy for violating the eligibility rule?
There are seven penalties for violating the rules of the association, and one of those is forfeiture of contests and titles. In fact, the only violation that explicitly can require forfeiture is using an ineligible player.
5. Who imposes the punishment?
By rule, each region's board of managers first deals with issues that arise from region play. In both of these cases, the board of managers imposed penalties that DID NOT include forfeiting any games. All disciplinary action taken by a region must be reviewed by the UHSAA's executive committee, which has the power to affirm, reject or change penalties. That occurred in a hearing on Wednesday, and that panel voted 3-2 to force both teams to forfeit all games in question. That eliminated East from the playoffs and dropped Timpview from a No. 1 seed to a No. 3 seed.
East, Timpview, Salem Hills and Springville all appealed the decision to the UHSAA's Board of Trustees, asking for a penalty less severe than forfeits. That five-member panel imposed new sanctions. Timpview was required to forfeit all four games in question, while East forfeited only six of the seven, allowing them to make the playoffs in the fourth and final spot from Region 6.
6. If East and Timpview had the same violation, why isn't the penalty the same?
Because while the panel upheld the executive committee's decision on forfeits as the preferred penalty in the Timpview case, they felt forcing East to forfeit all of the games in question was too harsh a penalty. They tried to mitigate the damage by allowing them to be the lowest-seeded team from their region in the playoffs.
6. How did three different panels representing the UHSAA come up with three different punishments?
The by-laws allow for a panel in deciding which and how to apply punishments to each unique situation. Just like three witnesses to the same crime will tell three slightly different stories, three different panels can find reasons for imposing the penalties allowed by the rules.
Each of the panels, including the region, was dealing with the same wording, which permitted that the association may forfeit a contest. Each panel used its best judgment. Not unlike the legal system, there can be differing points of view about what is a reasonable answer.
In this case, the final appeal panel felt putting East in the fourth and final playoff spot, on the road, without their coach, would be a more just punishment than simply barring them from the post-season.
7. Doesn't it punish a lot of other teams that did nothing wrong?
To some degree that's true. Herriman and Logan will likely play East and Timpview in the first round of the playoffs. Cyprus, Springville and Salem Hills were all eliminated by the decision.
But sometimes one side of the playoff bracket is loaded with top teams because of other variables. In last year's 5A state volleyball tournament, four of the five top-ranked teams were on one side of the bracket.
This year, Riverton High's volleyball coach proposed a seeding system because his team will not make the playoffs simply because, again, five of the state's top teams are in his region.
8. Final question: Does mercy – or too much discretion – lead to a lack of integrity in the rules of the association?
That's the question principals, athletic directors and coaches must wrestle with in the wake of this controversy. Those who don't want mercy should consider if they will feel differently when they're sitting at the table being judged. Those who want it should consider what high school sports would be like without the ability to rely on the integrity of the rules.
Mercy and justice are often competing interests. This issue is complicated by the reality that all of the boys affected by this did nothing wrong. Yet three teams don't get to compete in the postseason at all, and several others will face tougher opponents than they originally planned.
Sunday night Herriman head coach Larry Wilson and Logan head coach Mike Favero met with reporters to discuss their plans for protesting the BOT decision. The Jordan District released a statement condemning the decision and pointing out that Herriman parents may sue the association over the issue.
Little is clear at this point, but I do hope one thing comes from what is the most unusual pre-playoff week in history.
I hope every administrator is looking at how they determine the eligibility of their players and what safety nets they have in place to catch mistakes. Because I have a feeling the next time this issue comes before any panel, mercy will be tough to find.