Sometime this afternoon, the 12-member Tennessee Secondary School Athletic Association Board of Control will gather at Murfreesboro's Siegel High School to hear an eligibility appeal from a South Pittsburg High School student who the TSSAA banned a week ago from all athletic competition at the school for a full year for what was termed an "improper benefit."
Never mind that any organization with half a heart that had done its due diligence on this matter would have handed down a far less draconian penalty.
After all, we're not talking about the school's Quarterback Club buying this kid a car, an iPhone, an Old Navy gift card or even a Happy Meal at McDonald's (not the UT recruiting kind, of course).
Instead, hearing that the young man's family was down on its luck in the midst of COVID-19, the club — a 501(c)(3) organization, which means it's a nonprofit — secretly paid their December rent in a subsidized government house. That was it. One month. Period. And the family had zero knowledge of the identity of the Good Samaritan who did this, nor did anyone at the high school.
But instead of applying some level of decency, compassion and understanding to this sensitive issue, the TSSAA decided this "improper benefit" needed to be crushed with a sledgehammer instead of a feather. No sports for you, young man, for your entire senior year. And two years probation for the school, as well.
Ebenezer Scrooge and the Grinch would have both been so proud. They probably even sent the TSSAA a year's membership in the Jelly-of-the-Month Club.
But what if you were that family and you'd moved to the South Pittsburg community looking for a kinder, gentler life, believing that a small town was a better, more friendly place to raise your kids than Chattanooga, where a gang had recently shot a bullet into your residence?
What if the husband's hours had become limited at his place of employment because of downsizing due to COVID-19? And the mother had been forced to take a lower paying job because of the move? And while they hadn't asked for that December rent check to be picked up by someone else, it sure was a nice gesture for a family that was starting to wonder if paying that month's rent might mean not buying Christmas presents for their children.
Given all of that, what was more improper — the one-month paying of that rent, or the TSSAA erasing a young person's senior season in athletics?
Again, if you were the TSSAA, and the family had proof that they'd paid the rent themselves during the six months leading up to December, as well as the three months after that, would you not have felt some sense of charity to find a penalty that wouldn't have potentially ruined this young man's chances to prove he may deserve an athletic scholarship to college?
Could you not have, just maybe — especially since the family never asked anyone for help despite desperately needing it — merely required them to pay the Quarterback Club back, put the student-athlete on double-secret probation and told both the family and South Pittsburg High that if any other charge could be proven from March 16th (today) forward, that the original penalty of sitting out the entire school year would return, as well as a $2,000 fine for the school?
Would that have been so hard? Should that not be the decision reached today through the appeal?
Don't misunderstand. Laws and rules are important. They help assure an orderly and civilized society. And when it comes to illegal recruiting of athletes at the high school level, there's not a more volatile county in the state than Marion, where the South Pittsburg-Marion County rivalry can sometimes make Alabama-Auburn look like a 1960s love-in.
And perhaps because of that, when a representative of the TSSAA was reportedly asked last week about the severity of the penalty, he replied that it was considered a recruiting violation because if the family had been evicted for inability to pay rent, they were supposedly going to have to move back to Chattanooga. Making that rent payment was viewed as an enticement to remain at South Pitt.
That logic makes sense until you research two things.
1) Due to COVID, the government isn't allowing evictions of low-income renters until the end of this month, and even that may be extended if the Biden Administration gets its way.
2) In a letter from the athlete's mother that will be presented at today's appeals hearing, she wrote, "We have never told anyone or indicated to anybody that we are leaving We love it here My own son is saying if he can't be a Pirate, he doesn't even want to play anymore."
Sound like a family that was only living there to play sports at South Pitt? Or does it sound like the gumshoes at the TSSAA never even bothered to interview the family whose lives they were about to ruin?
Either way, it's tough to say which is worse:
A) Making the ruling they did because they didn't bother to get their facts straight.
Or B) Having their facts straight and delivering so harsh a ruling anyway.
Because of that, if the TSSAA isn't gracious enough to grant the appeal this afternoon, let us hope the family lawyers up and appeals that ruling as far up the judicial ladder as it takes for justice and fairness to prevail.
Contact Mark Wiedmer at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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