The Hot Corner: Forfeit lengthens chain of wrong choices

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If two wrongs don’t make a right, just imagine the mess a chain of missteps and unfortunate decisions leaves in its wake.

The easy thing to do Tuesday morning, when word got out that Telstar will forfeit this weekend’s scheduled Class D West football quarterfinal at Lisbon, was criticize Telstar. The school, the program, its coaches and administration made a decision that appears to be the evil twin brother of quitting.

And I’m not going to let the Rebels off the hook, by any stretch of the first-down marker. It was a lengthy chain of events that shouldn’t have happened, however, which put Telstar in the position of making that questionable choice.

Short version: Telstar, a team whose roster dwindled from 28 players to 20 during the season due to the standard attrition rate, didn’t win a game on the field this fall. The Rebels weren’t even close, going 0-7, including a 40-6 throttling in Kittery at the hands of Traip Academy.

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Days later, an internal audit of a Traip reserve player’s transcript revealed that he wasn’t eligible. His limited participation in three wins – including the one over Telstar – forced Traip to forfeit them all.

Class D West coaches consented, for the second consecutive season, to an eight-team playoff. Then Sacopee Valley, a team even worse off than Telstar in terms of bodies and tradition, dropped out, leaving the Campbell Conference small-school division with nine teams.

Once Traip finished the season 0-7 after losses to Oak Hill and Dirigo, the Rangers were the odd team out. Lo and behold, the Rebels – outscored 263-40 – were in the playoffs.

In some ways, subtracting Telstar’s curious response to the invitation, you can see how the Rebels might be construed as a victim in all of this. So before pig-piling upon them too vigorously, let’s take inventory of ways that we could have avoided putting the Rebels in the position of pleading for mercy.

First of all, Sacopee Valley and Telstar have been trying too hard to fit in for years. Once upon a time, in a land not so far, far away, there was a developmental league, built with the purpose of sanely growing the great game of football in Maine.

For a variety of reasons, most notably everyone’s desire to be “varsity” programs and the need to increase the number of schools so that the Maine Principals’ Association would expand football from three classes to four, teams rushed to make the jump.

And for what? Sacopee went winless in five full seasons, having to forfeit two regular-season games along the way due to a shortage of players. Telstar won three games in four years. They’re far from alone. It’s easy to make the case that Hermon, Camden Hills, Gray-New Gloucester, Ellsworth, Washington, Houlton, Mount View and possibly even Gorham would be well served by a year or two or twenty of being able to pick on someone their own size.

Then came the fallout from Traip’s triple-forfeit. The Rangers turned themselves in. They weren’t expecting leniency from the MPA, and they didn’t get any. The rules say that if an ineligible player appears in a game, and your team wins, it must surrender the win.

There is no “spirit of the law.” Nothing is open to interpretation. Do you know why the MPA has those kill-a-fly-with-a-sledgehammer standards? It isn’t their fault. It’s ours, as a society. If they made even one exception, it would be used for eternity as every guilty school’s precedent in pleading its innocence. The games of “gotcha” that we like to play these days come with a price, you see.

Some have asked why Telstar couldn’t simply transfer its playoff invitation to Traip and let the Rangers play Lisbon. Same reason. Then we’d have schools manipulating the brackets and jockeying for position like family members at the reading of a will any time this happened in the future. Sad, but true.

Campbell Conference coaches probably could have solved this problem by reducing the size of the playoff field to a reasonable six. Eight playoff teams are too many for a league of 9 or even 10. The problem with six is that it isn’t an “even” number, by tournament standards. The top two teams would have byes, and high school football coaches hate byes.

Well, now Lisbon is getting one, anyway.

Not that there is any good reason. No matter what odds were stacked against it, regardless of how illogical its participation in the playoffs appeared to anyone with a shred of sanity, Telstar needed to play this game.

Bowing out sends an absolutely wrong message. “Safety” is a hollow argument, because, news flash, football isn’t a safe game. “Numbers” aren’t a legitimate excuse, either. Lisbon’s number of non-freshman players is not substantially greater than Telstar’s.

The decision not to practice this week or make a bus ride and play a game Saturday is counterintuitive to everything that sports, and especially the game of football, teach.

Telstar football players will become adults, and someday the odds will be stacked against them there, too. Life happens. Unemployment, bankruptcy, divorce and cancer happen.

Do you quit? Or do you play to the whistle, or the final horn?

While it’s true that adults made a host of shaky decisions that led to Telstar saying thanks-but-no-thanks, the greatest shame of all is that the collective adults in charge didn’t insist on making their boys play Lisbon.

Parents, friends and coaches may have convinced the Rebels that waving the white flag was the right choice today. But I guarantee that in a week, a month, a year, or 75 years, they will recognize it was the wrong one.

Telstar had a chance to break the chain. Someday, the regret of not doing so will be palpable, and irreparable.

Kalle Oakes is a staff writer. His email is koakes@sunjournal.com. Follow him on Twitter @Oaksie72.

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