We tend to be a hypercompetitive society, concerned more about the bottom line than lessons learned along the way.
The results from last Thursday’s district cross country meet in Columbus Junction are missing Zach Houghland’s name. Despite winning an individual championship in the race, the Davis County senior was disqualified for coming to the aid of an opposing school’s runner.
Amid the celebration and cool-down period, Houghland saw Garrett Hinson of Mediapolis fall to the ground with an apparent injury. No one was around to offer Hinson immediate assistance, so Houghland took matters into his own hands. He went approximately 150 feet back onto the course, helped Hinson to his feet, and walked with him until right before the finish line.
Despite the pure act of unfiltered sportsmanship, Houghland later had his time revoked; he’d technically re-entered the field of competition and assisted Hinson during live action, breaking a National Federation rule applied to all cross country races.
From a linear perspective, many concentrated solely on the end result. How could officials oust Houghland? Even if they were following the letter of the law, did this judgment also encompass the spirit of the law?
In a fortuitous bounce that spared the Iowa High School Athletic Association of further controversy, Davis County did qualify for state as a team, meaning Houghland will still make the trip to Fort Dodge this Saturday. Even so, was it really necessary to strip him of the individual honors that go with winning a district title?
Fans lauded Houghland for such a selfless act, and of course, concurrently challenged the interpretation of the rule. The main focus remained fixated on Houghland’s fate in the meet in the days following the event.
Because of that, the reaction from Houghland himself was somewhat lost in the shuffle. When asked if – looking back with the benefit of experience – he would still help Hinson, Houghland replied, ”absolutely.”
He didn’t hesitate, or challenge authority, or feel sorry for himself, or build a wall of excuses afterward. Houghland’s thought process centered around helping a human being in need first and foremost, not the consequences of the decision.
This wasn’t about his legacy as a runner, or the potential impact his situation would have on similar circumstances in the future. Above all else, Houghland had only been concerned with following the Golden Rule.
Put the controversy and the finger-pointing and the judging aside, and remember this young man’s intent: to bring a simple moral to a complicated story. It’s a race and Houghland’s a competitor, without question. But the messages will always be bigger than the meets.
At the end of the day, we’re still defined by how we treat – not defeat – each other.
Eric Pratt is Sports Editor at The Messenger. He may be reached afternoons and evenings at 1-800-622-6613, or by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org