When the Rules Don't Have to Rule: Lessons From the Narbonne Gauchos

Southern California's Narbonne High School girls' basketball team made the headlines last week, not for winning the state championship but for forfeiting a playoff game and being disqualified from further tournament play because they violated the conference uniform policy.

Showing solidarity with Women's Basketball Coaches Association "Play 4 Kay" cancer awareness program, the Narbonne Gauchos wore pink numerals and lettering on their white jerseys in a city playoff game. Professional and college teams were praised for doing the very same thing earlier in the month. Yet the conference rules state that teams must wear only their official school colors, green, gold and black, unless prior approval is received for alternative colors. Conference Commissioner John Aguire defended his ruling: "That's what the rule tells me. I am going to be consistent." Aguire explained that Narbonne was under probation for having played a disqualified player the previous year. "Administrators are responsible for making sure their teams and kids are doing the right things," Aguirre said.

Aguire's sincerity and commitment to not only upholding the rules, but also to teaching high school students the importance of respecting law and order are beyond reproach. Adolescence is a time when young people must learn that rules are necessary for social functioning. Narbonne's coach, Victoria Sanders, did her team a disservice when she flaunted the rules by playing a player who was automatically disqualified for receiving two technical fouls in the same game. She and her team deserved to be punished for trying to win the wrong way.

This time around the situation was different. Sanders acted altruistically and in ignorance. When the punishment was levied, she came through for her team offering the appeals committee the option of punishing her rather than the team. The committee decided to suspend Sanders while overturning the forfeit and reinstating the team in the playoffs.

This Solomonesque decision rightly saved the team from an unmerited penalty, but what did it teach them about rules and morality? Latecia Smith, Narbonne's star player objected to Aguire's original ruling as both too punitive and unmerited to begin with:

It's completely devastating to have it end like this. The punishment seems so harsh when it's not the players' fault. If we had known, we would have never disregarded the rules.

The appeals board should have responded to Smith's second point -- the Gauchos (including their coach) were excusably ignorant that they had to obtain a waiver before wearing pink.

Sanders didn't deserve punishment this time around, even though she graciously asked for it. Rules should ordinarily be upheld, and adolescents should be taught the function that rules serve. Yet enforcing rules that do not take into account the violator's knowledge and intention undermines adolescents' trust in authority. Coaches and athletic administrators would do well to listen to student-athletes like Smith. Student athletes may still be developing morally, but they can certainly help their elders to be more fair toward and more understanding of those they are trying to serve.