It had all the elements of an explosive national story: a Texas high school track team disqualified after one of its runners crossed the finish line and pointed to the sky in thanks to the Lord.
However, after an investigation, the University Interscholastic League of Texas concluded that religion played no role in the disqualification, that the basis of the decision "was due to the student-athlete behaving disrespectfully, in the opinion of the local meet referee," according to a statement from the UIL.
Jamey Harrison, deputy director of the UIL, told Yahoo! Sports on Monday that he has seen the video of the race in question and spoken multiple times with the runner, Derrick Hayes of Columbus High School.
"The headlines are suggesting the man was disqualified because of an act of faith," Harrison said. "That is inaccurate."
Robert O'Connor, superintendent of Columbus Independent School District, concurred.
"There was unsportsmanlike conduct," O'Connor said. "If there was just a point to God, we would be going to Austin for state."
The uproar began when Hayes' father, K.C., told a Houston news station that his son "put his hand by his ear and pointed at the heavens" after winning the anchor leg of a relay race last weekend. The station did report that according to the rules that govern the sport "you can't show any excessive act of celebration." The idea that a high school team was deprived of a trip to state because of a show of faith got national attention and ridicule. It appeared to be a tone deaf decision at least, and a violation of religious freedom at worst.
According to the UIL's Harrison, however, Hayes crossed the finish line and pointed not above his head but straight out in front of him. That brought a red flag from a track official, which signaled that he needed to review what had happened. Hayes and the official then had a verbal exchange, and the runner was disqualified. Harrison told Yahoo! Sports he spoke with Hayes, his father, and the official who made the ruling.
"Although I am very thankful for all God has given me and blessed me with … my actions upon winning the 4x100 relay were strictly the thrill of victory," Derrick Hayes said in a statement released by the UIL. "With this being said, I do not feel my religious rights or freedoms were violated.”
Hayes did tap his chest and point to the sky in an expression of gratitude, Harrison said, but that did not happen until after the red flag was raised.
Runners had been warned before the meet that no gestures made across the finish line would be tolerated.
"Every report we have heard was that at the scratch meeting, the referee said no gesturing across the finish line, and that could be grounds for disqualification," Harrison said.
Yahoo! Sports has requested footage of the finish of the race in question.
Most important to Harrison is his assertion that an "act of faith" had no bearing on the disqualification. He said although the family is not pleased with the decision, Derrick Hayes agrees that the disqualification was not on religious grounds.
"This is Texas," Harrison said. "It is quite OK to thank our Father. If this young man was disqualified for religious reasons, we would have had a problem. That is not the case."
Harrison said the judge at the meet is a 30-year veteran of the sport and is a "good, Christian man."
"He would never disqualify for an act of faith," Harrison said. "I have met him, I have talked to several people who know him. In the opinion of the official, [Hayes] was in violation of track rules. We don't have a mechanism for overturning that."
Harrison did not place blame on the Hayes family, saying, "They are very upset for the way this has been reported." He called Derrick Hayes "a good young man."
Harrison said there is no "excessive celebration" rule, and that the decision was based on a National Federation of State High Schools Association (NFHS) rule that reads: "Unsporting conduct is behavior that is unethical or dishonorable. It includes, but is not limited to: disrespectfully addressing an official, any flagrant behavior, intentional contact, taunting, criticizing or using profanity directed toward someone. This shall apply to all coaches, contestants and other team/school personnel."
It is still in doubt whether pointing straight ahead constitutes "unethical or dishonorable" behavior. Harrison said the UIL will be working with the NFHS to "clarify" the meaning of that rule.
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