Benefield: Debate swirls over SCL runners' disqualification for hand-in-hand finish

It’s right there in black and white.

In Section 6, Article 5, Item c of the National Federation of State High School Associations track and field rulebook, it states clearly: “It is an unfair act when a competitor receives any assistance. Assistance includes ... Competitors joining or grasping hands with each other during a race.”

No one disputes that El Molino High senior Brian Schulz and Healdsburg High sophomore Dante Godinez joined hands on the home stretch of the 1,600-meter run at the Sonoma County League track and field prelims May 11. And no one disputes it violated the letter of the law.

As a result, both athletes, stars on each of their respective squads, were disqualified not only from the 1,600-meter race but the 800-meter race as well, for behavior considered unsporting.

Where the conversation gets murky is over the athletes’ intentions - was it to taunt or showboat their significant lead? Or merely to celebrate making it to the final? If it makes any difference, and I think it does, these are athletes from rival schools who joined hands.

“You are talking about two people who actually care about each other. That’s not unsportsmanlike to me,” said El Molino track and field coach Ryan Hopkins. “This is a very tight-knit, close community of distance runners who train year-round. I understand (the rule), but to not allow someone to compete in their best events just because they care about each other?”

The NFHS rulebook calls for athletes who have shown “unsporting conduct” - which “includes, but is not limited to: disrespectfully addressing an official, any flagrant behavior, intentional contact, taunting or criticizing or using profanity directed toward someone” - to not only be disqualified from the event during which it occurred, but the whole meet.

The fact that both were allowed to run in the 3,200-meter race at Saturday’s SCL finals was a kind of technicality. Because the 3,200 did not have a preliminary heat Thursday, it was decided that it was a separate meet, so they were allowed to compete. As expected, and perhaps spurred by an added fire, Schulz ran away with it, finishing in 9:24. Jonny Vargas of Piner finished in 9:44 and Godinez got third in 9:54.

Both Schulz and Godinez advance to Saturday’s Redwood Empire Championships at Redwood High School in Larkspur.

The 3,200 meters is Schulz’s best event and he is one of the best the area has ever produced. Godinez is the cream of Healdsburg’s distance runners, but his better events are the shorter 1,600- and 800-meter races from which he was axed.

So good is Schulz that, to be honest, I’m not sure I would have noticed the DQ in the prelims had it not been attached to his name. The senior is all over the record books.

His best 3,200-meter time this season, 9:24, is fastest in the Redwood Empire and eighth fastest in the North Coast Section.

In the fall, Schulz finished third in the CIF cross country Div. 5 boys race - the best placing among all Redwood Empire runners at the event. Schulz posted the fasted 3,200-meter time for a freshman ever in the Redwood Empire. He holds the third-fastest sophomore time and the third-fastest time for a junior. His 4:22.08 is the sixth-fastest 1,600-meter from an area sophomore ever.

Godinez is Healdsburg’s top distance guy. His 2:03 in the 800 meters is ninth best in the Empire this season and he’s only a sophomore.

The runners’ athletic gifts may have brought more attention to what happened last Thursday, but it doesn’t change how the penalty could have, or should have, been meted out.

“(The rule) doesn’t say for what reason they did it, whether they were trying to block out other runners or whether they were doing it for spirit. You can’t do that,” said Sonoma Valley track coach Linda Patterson, who was meet director at the prelims. “Unfortunately, it was the two fastest runners.”

By Patterson’s account, Schulz was way ahead of the main field, but Godinez was his next-nearest competitor. With about 100 meters to go, she said, Schulz slowed to allow Godinez to catch up.

“At about 80 meters they grabbed each other,” she said. “They went hand in hand down to the finish line holding hands.”

I asked if it seemed liked taunting, considering the lead both runners had on the rest of the pack.

“It was inappropriate,” she said, declining to go into detail.

Reaction from the meet umpire who was stationed at the finish line was immediate: Both runners would be disqualified.

Hopkins, who was overseeing the discus event and didn’t see the infraction, said he was approached by Patterson immediately following the completion of the race.

“She told me that (Schulz) had grabbed an opponent’s hand and was going to be disqualified for it,” he said. “It was considered taunting and I’m like, ‘Time out.’

“I don’t think Brian or Dante wanted to offend anyone, but were rooting each other on,” he said. “It’s a sad thing when you are promoting not being a sportsman.”

I talked to a good number of track coaches about this over the last couple of days. They all expressed dismay at the disqualifications, but to a person, all said that the no-contact rule is clear. They also said it’s widely understood. We are not talking about some archaic regulation.

Three cross country runners from the Maria Carrillo High team did the same thing at a meet last fall - all three were DQ’d.

I don’t know Godinez, but I have talked to Schulz any number of times for columns in these pages. From that limited perspective, I have a hard time believing he was taunting anyone. But I can also see how the ease with which Schulz and Godinez finished the race, and any early celebration, might sting a kid for whom that finish was a little bit harder to come by.

But the fact is, the runners’ intention doesn’t matter here. They clasped hands before the finish line, a violation which requires disqualification, per the rules.

“It’s right there in the rulebook, word for word,” SCL Commissioner Dave Ashworth said. “My thought is, if it’s in black and white, how can you disagree with that?”

Days later now, and fresh off of El Molino’s first boys track and field pennant since 2004, Hopkins sounded philosophical about what went down and how it went down.

He knows he lost his cool. He says he was going to bat for a gifted runner who has been a crucial piece of El Molino’s re-emergence on the track and field scene.

And with added days’ perspective, he agrees the rule of law was followed, but he also questions whether a more subjective approach could be adopted at some point. Something that takes into account what he called the runners’ attempt at camaraderie in the heat of battle.

After all, nobody would have been disqualified had the two athletes grabbed hands after they crossed the finish line.

It’s human to feel that following the letter of the law can feel prescriptive, especially when you find yourself on the hard end of a ruling. Or if you feel you know your athlete and understand their intentions.

But rules in competition are necessary, and often critical, when both emotions and stakes are high.

But rules are, for better or worse, very much part of the game.

You can reach staff columnist Kerry Benefield at 707-526-8671 or, on Twitter @benefield and on Instagram at kerry.benefield. Podasting on iTunes and SoundCloud “Overtime with Kerry Benefield.”

Kerry Benefield

Columnist, The Press Democrat

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