Of the likely places for a debate over religious free expression to erupt, a Texas high school track and field meet probably wasn’t high on the list.
Remarkably, that’s precisely where one athlete’s reactionary gesture has led to a broader discussion about what is appropriate at public school events, after a Columbus (Texas) High relay team was disqualified for one of their member’s heavenward gesture. The incident occurred in Columbus, where the track and field team was hosting a meet with the goal of qualify athletes for the state championship meet later in May.
As first reported by Houston CBS affiliate KHOU, the school’s 4x100-meter relay squad achieved just that in winning its race decisively. The anchor of that 4x100 squad was junior Derrick Hayes, who ran a particularly blazing split and celebrated the team’s state qualification with a simple finger point to the heavens.
The gesture is a common one in sports -- remember Sammy Sosa or Barry Bonds after breaking the single season home run record? -- but on this occasion, it was deemed to have run afoul of a University Interscholastic League (UIL) regulation barring excessive celebration.
Once officials at the Columbus meet determined that Hayes had violated the excessive celebration rules, the entire 4x100-meter squad was disqualified and effectively barred from the state championships. The team will not get another chance to qualify for the meet.
“He put his hand by his ear and pointed to the heavens,” Hayes’ father, KC Hayes, told KHOU. “It was a reaction. You’re brought up your whole life that God gives you good things, you’re blessed.”
While there appears to be little recourse for the runners to be reinstated in the state championships, that hardly means that the surprising disqualification is a closed issue. Instead, residents around the area have spoken up in support of the teen athlete and questioning the wisdom of any UIL rule that would prohibit a form of religious free expression.
“I don’t see what the big deal is,” Columbus resident Laporchia Miller told KHOU. “When people are thanking God, he’s the reason we live.”
Added Weimar resident Steve Williams, when the station told him that it was policy to bar any hand gestures under the excessive celebration rules:
“Well, then it’s not a good policy.”