By Steve Williams

Like anything in life, sports also can get off track every now and then … A recruiting violation occurs. A rule is broken. A fight breaks out during a contest, etc.

And when they do, there are people in positions to determine what the penalties or fines must be.

We want such people to be firm and consistent in their rulings to help deter future wrongdoings. We also should want those who judge to be fair and compassionate and have some room for leniency in their final verdicts.

Even in sports, there’s an old saying I heard in my officiating days often – sometimes it’s best to officiate not by the letter of the rule, but by the spirit of the rule.

I also think this saying is like a cousin, if you will, to what Andy tells Barney in one of the old Andy Griffith Show episodes that I’m a longtime fan of …

“When you’re a lawman and you’re dealing with people, you do a whole lot better if you go not so much by the book but by the heart.”

What I’m getting at, as you probably know, are the penalties and fines that were handed out last week pertaining to what happened in a semifinal region basketball game between William Blount and Farragut. What some called a fight was really just a scuffle and was defused quickly by school administrators and coaches.

After reviewing the officials’ report sent to me as a media member of The Knoxville Focus and watching the video several times, I felt there were only two players – one on each team – who should have been ejected for a flagrant technical foul. That was Farragut’s No. 12 who “threw an elbow” and William Blount’s No. 20 “who then throws No. 12 to the ground” according to the officials’ report.

Instead of two, there were a total of 24 players ejected from that incident – 13 from William Blount and 11 from Farragut.

Most of these were assessed a flagrant technical foul and ejected for far less inappropriate actions and some for just leaving the bench and entering the court.

My opinion is based on having been a TSSAA basketball official for some 25 years, as well as calling balls and strikes as a TSSAA baseball umpire and throwing flags as a TSSAA football official for at least 20 years.

Had the officials not ruled by the letter of the rule but by the spirit of the rule, that game would have been completed and Farragut most likely would have won (it led 63-50 with only 1 minute and 38 seconds remaining). The Admirals thus would have played Bearden for the region championship last Thursday night with all their players except for the one who was rightly ejected.

Instead, the initial decision by the TSSAA to rule it a no contest was corrected after Farragut High won a second appeal on Thursday. “The game should have continued with the players available to each team, provided it was in a safe environment,” the TSSAA stated in a press release. “Farragut High School and William Blount High School may choose to proceed.”

And they did with three eligible players each playing the final 1:38 on Friday at 5, with the winner advancing to play Bearden at 7.

William Blount could easily have chosen to forfeit the contest, instead of taking time to drive to Farragut and finishing the contest in a 3-on-3 game that took just four to five minutes to complete. The official final score ended up being 68-55.

William Blount Coach Kevin Windle said he felt like it was the right thing to do. All of the players from both teams were there, including the ejected players, and each team sat together and watched the game be concluded.

All players – those ejected and those who played – then got in line like they normally do after a game and walked single file by each other, shaking hands. It was a sight that one longtime high school sports fan even told me brought a tear to his eye.

“Every player from both teams came out of the stands and went through the handshake line,” he said, having watched it on video. “Perfect sportsmanship. Actually brought tears to my eyes. Such great kids on both teams!”

Personally, I commend Coach Windle and Coach Jon Higgins of Farragut and their teams for what they did. They honored the game. They also showed that they were people with good character. I also believe these two schools will have a long and close relationship for years to come because of last week’s incident.

Farragut played Bearden Friday night in the region finals and lost 74-40 because they were playing one of the state’s top teams with what they had left – two varsity players and five JV players.

One reliable source told me Friday before the game was completed that Farragut High had filed an appeal earlier that day, asking the TSSAA to reduce the two-game suspension to one game for the ejected Farragut players, which if approved would allow them to play in Monday night’s Sectional game at Dobyns-Bennett.

The source also said the appeal was denied and the TSSAA charged FHS $50 for services to process the appeal.

I also talked with Farragut Principal Dr. John Bartlett after the incomplete game was completed and he told me he planned to be in touch with the TSSAA state office again Monday morning.

Bernard Childress, the TSSAA Executive Director, played in a TSSAA state basketball tournament when he was on the Columbia Central High team in 1973 and it was played at Stokely Athletics Center in Knoxville.

In a column I once did on Childress, he said his team lost to two-time defending state champion Chattanooga Riverside.

“You never forgot those memories,” he said. “The large crowd at Stokely … and the fans cheering you on …”

Today Childress has the power to make a wrong a right if he’ll just show compassion and overturn Farragut’s suspension by simply using the spirit of the rule that should have been used in the first place, particularly for a tournament game of this magnitude.

By doing that, Childress may very well give a team full of young men some special memories they can enjoy someday too.