Ravell Call, Deseret News
MIDVALE — The panel that showed mercy to the East football players by allowing them to keep one win and enter the 4A playoffs as a fourth seed said in a written statement that the mistakes made by East High's administration were a pattern "of indulgence and indifference."
"It was also a scheme that intentionally violated the Association’s rules," the decision said. "The Association requires that the coach, the AD, the Principal and others take affirmative action to assure no ineligible player takes the field or court."
The panel, composed of five members of the Board of Trustees of the Utah High School Activities Association, issued the written rulings Wednesday, five days after making the decision to use the discretion allowed in UHSAA by-laws to mitigate the harm that would have befallen all of East's student athletes because of the school's failure to ensure four of them were eligible.
"From these provisions, we find that we have the discretion to impose or decline to impose forfeiture in total or in part as we fashion proper relief," the decision said. "We believe that forfeiture is the appropriate sanction but for the rare circumstance where the forfeiture is unduly harsh and would impose not merely a sanction or penalty but an unreasonably burdensome hardship. We believe that in this case, the forfeiture of every contest and the resulting loss of eligibility to compete in the State Football Tournament for the eligible players is too harsh a result on the specific facts before us."
Meanwhile, the panel wrote that the separate penalty it imposed against Timpview — forfeiture of all four games in which the T-Birds used an ineligible player — was not too harsh because Timpview didn't "present any argument or refer to any evidence suggesting that the panel should use discretion to avoid a substantial or harsh result for any Timpview students."
With regard to East, the Board of Trustees laid out in its written decision why it decided to allow the Salt Lake City school into the tournament — and noted it considered the ramifications of making such a decision.
"We are not unaware that in placing East as a fourth seed, it will be playing teams that otherwise would have faced lower seeds," the decision said. "Accordingly, we will require East to play every postseason game on the road and suspend its head football coach for the first three games of the playoffs."
The written decision also said the panel considered in some depth the fact that its decision to show mercy to East's players would eliminate the Cyprus players from the 4A playoffs. Still, it felt it needed to make the Leopards forfeit as many of the contests in question as possible without eliminating the team from postseason play.
"East shall be required to forfeit six of seven contests, and to forfeit those that will place it in the fourth and last post season position. We realize that in so doing, we are seeding it ahead of Cyprus, a team with no violations," the decision said. "We do so, in part, because at the end of the season, East had been in first place, with a three team tie for second. Cyprus was a distant fifth."
"In the exercise of our discretion, we are keeping the first four teams in the region in the playoffs," it continued. "Additionally, when the region considered forfeitures, which would have placed Cyprus in the playoffs, Cyprus voted against those forfeitures. In so doing, Cyprus openly consented to East’s participation in the playoffs despite playing ineligible players."
The written decision also noted that the determination to show mercy wasn't just about the plight of the four ineligible players used by East. It was also about the players that had done nothing wrong that would have severally punished.
It reiterated that the mistakes made by East athletic director Kathy Butler and principal Paul Sagers were not "clerical errors" and that the school's failure to determine eligibility left the UHSAA panel with the responsibility of protecting those innocent players who'd relied on the school to follow the rules.
"We accept in full the findings of the EC Hearing Panel regarding East’s egregious violations of the rules," the decision said. "East willfully turned a blind eye to these problems and evidenced a total lack of institutional control. In so doing, East put the Association in the untenable position of attempting to salvage the eligibility of its students, notwithstanding that their eligibility was threatened not by any act of the Association, but rather by East’s own failures and violations."
The panel found grave errors in the system used by East to determine eligibility in each of the four cases, specifically with the athletic director and principal.
"These were not mere 'clerical errors,' despite East’s attempt to minimize its own recklessness," the panel said. "When questioned, East admitted that the errors here were not clerical but wholesale failures to follow the rules. There were at least four admitted instances in which students who should have submitted paperwork for a hardship waiver to establish eligibility were purportedly told by the AD that they did not need to do so. In each case, the excuse given in the hearings for this failure was based on untenable and unreasonable interpretations of the rules. These notions were so plainly wrong that no one, including any administrator, could have thought them correct."
The panel found the mistakes to be more sinister than oversights or misjudgements. The decision also chastised East's administration for not involving head coach Brandon Matich in determining eligibility of student athletes.
"In practice, the head coach is the person most likely to recognize and report new and possibly ineligible players. Clearly, under the Association’s rules, the East coach continued to have this duty, but the East principal circumvented it by suggesting that all the eligibility matters be placed on the shoulders of the AD. Consequently, by order of her principal, she could not expect help from either the principal or the coach. We cannot be certain that it was deliberate, but it set the stage for her to appear responsible for failures that actually belonged to the principal and head coach.
"These sorts of violations were, in our view, the inevitable result of this mismanagement of the rules by the principal. He is, after all, the official to whom the Association trusts with the responsibility of eligibility."
Meanwhile, the panel said in its written statement it did not find the penalty imposed against Timpview by the Executive Committee panel two days earlier was too harsh a penalty on the T-birds.
Additionally, a fourth game was imposed in the Board of Trustees' decision because Timpview reported a fourth violation in its appeal hearing last Friday.
"Timpview argued that the decision in which it had participated, that of Region 8, should be reinstated," the panel said. "Timpview did not seek nor present any argument or refer to any evidence suggesting that the Panel should use discretion to avoid a substantial or harsh result for any Timpview students. This Panel unanimously affirms the decision of the EC Panel in all regards, noting that Timpview will have to forfeit one additional game."
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