Football is a bundle of contradictions. What do you expect from a game whose most esteemed coach borrowed the one-liner, “Winning isn’t everything. It’s the only thing,” and made it famous?
It is a game both brutally honest and sometimes beholden to an it’s-legal-until-you-get-caught philosophy. It teaches invaluable life lessons, brutal ones, and occasionally foolish ones.
No surprise, then, that there were mixed feelings when Traip Academy and Portland High School were forced to forfeit gridiron victories this week.
The severity of the self-imposed penalties was different, even though the transgressions were similar. Maine Principals’ Association rules limit a student to eight semesters of athletic eligibility. Traip’s player in question, unknown to everyone else until it was too late, was in his ninth semester. At Portland, an athlete appeared in a game before the MPA officially approved his transfer for academic reasons, meaning that he should not have played.
For using an ineligible transfer student who did little more than play on kickoffs and punts, Traip had to give back three wins. Barring a shock-the-world win over Dirigo next week, the Rangers will be considered winless and denied a playoff berth that the majority of the team clearly earned.
Because it also used an unapproved player, Portland handed over a 42-14 victory over rival Deering. The mistake cost them one game, and in a coincidental stroke of good fortune, they’ll likely get another shot at Deering in the playoffs.
The fact that there is no recourse for Traip makes us queasy. The idea that athletes and coaches pay the price for an administrative error makes us howl.
Of course, those of us with a shred of empathy who don’t get our jollies from kicking people while they’re down also feel sorry for the athletic directors. Reviewing transcripts and paperwork for every athlete in a mobile society, with non-traditional family structure on the rise, is a thankless if not impossible task.
We also roll our eyes a dozen times every year when athletes move from one school to the next for what clearly are not “academic reasons.” There appears to be little if any regulation of such recruiting and/or head games, and when it benefits one school at the expense of another, we go bonkers.
Steadfast, draconian rules annoy us, too. Traip’s punishment doesn’t appear to fit the confessed crime. These common violations almost always are on the honor system, self-reported, yet the book is thrown at the offenders without fail. Couldn’t a committee hear guilty pleas on a case-by-case basis? Isn’t it common sense that a special teams player didn’t make a difference in three lopsided wins?
In defense of the MPA, we have ourselves to blame for all-or-nothing regulation. We’ve created a world in which we aim a magnifying glass at human frailty and demand immediate satisfaction. Also, we’ve tried to create utopian fairness in a universe where there is no such animal. If the MPA didn’t attend to the letter of its law, beaten foes Boothbay, Maranacook and Telstar would cry foul. And we would concede that they have a legitimate case, even if they didn’t.
Having this painful discussion twice in one week seemed like an anomaly. But football forfeits are common. It’s hard to ensure the eligibility of 20, 40 or 60 kids before the start of a season. And if you’re old enough to have a grasp of the sport’s history, you may recall that one school had it worse than Traip.
In 1990, Madison upset Old Orchard Beach, 15-14, in a thrilling Class C West semifinal to set up a state title matchup against Livermore Falls. The Bulldogs were seeking their third consecutive state title.
When it reported for practice the following Tuesday, the team was informed that a two-way starter – one who had moved away as a freshman, dropped out, then returned to Madison the next year – violated the eight-semester rule. Madison turned itself in and forfeited the entire season. OOB was handed the ticket to the state game, took its uniforms out of cold storage and won the Gold Ball.
“After everything we had been through this season, and to have this blow up in our face, it’s a letdown that you can’t imagine,” Madison coach Carl Rudman told the Bangor Daily News at the time. “It’s a terrible thing and nobody is to blame. I think we’re all a little bitter. These kids did nothing wrong. It was tough to see the tears and the frustration when we broke the news. It’s the hardest thing I’ve ever had to go through.”
Athletic director Bob Clement stood up and took the heat, as adults do. “The boy is an innocent victim,” he told the media. “It was our responsibility to check, and we missed it.”
Yes, football hurts. Physically, and sometimes emotionally. You can invest your heart, soul and blood, risk your health, and still see few tangible benefits.
In that way, it’s a lot like life. Madison saw those extremes four years later, winning a state title only two months after five of its students, including two members of the football team, were killed in a highway crash.
Better and worse things will happen to the kids from Traip and Portland, long after their pads and helmets are put away. That’s something we just have to embrace as part of this crazy ride.
What happened to them this past week was both the right thing and the wrong thing. That’s a contradiction we’d do well to accept, too.
Kalle Oakes is a staff writer. His email is [email protected] Follow him on Twitter @Oaksie72.