Apparently, life really is like “High School Musical.”
Only in one of the Disney movies filmed at Salt Lake City’s East High School could a happy ending come with less consideration of unintended consequences, enabling Zac Efron and the fictional East “Wildcats” to compete in the Class 4A football playoffs next week.
Because trustees of the Utah High School Activities Association overturned the executive committee’s decision that would have made the actual East Leopards forfeit four region games for using four ineligible players, their season is not over. Instead, they were given an arbitrary berth as Region 6’s No. 4 qualifier.
While anyone with a heart should feel happy for the East players, there’s some definite fallout for the association that makes this decision difficult to endorse.
The trustees will have to live with the reality that enforcing ineligibility issues just became much more difficult. And while they didn’t want to make East’s players pay for their administrators’ mistakes in what became a no-win situation for the UHSAA, the trustees turned the Herriman Mustangs into victims. Having earned the No. 1 seed from Region 7, Herriman now must face top-ranked East next Saturday in the first round of the 16-team playoffs, assuming the Leopards win a play-in game Tuesday.
In trying to treat the Leopards fairly, the UHSAA unwittingly tilted the field against an even more innocent group of players in the southwest corner of the Salt Lake Valley.
Believe me, I understand that football is especially important as a unifying force in East’s diverse community. It’s also true that coach Brandon Matich, who’s being suspended for three games, is an exemplary leader, concerned about his players. The case included the personal stories of the players directly involved, and those innocently affected.
Those are powerful, but should they have been enough to overturn the ruling? No.
East principal Paul Sagers must be held accountable. During the appeal hearing, he offered to accept full blame by resigning his position if that meant the Leopards would be allowed to play. So these are Sagers’ choices: Follow through, as promised, or personally pay the school’s $6,000 fine.
Once the UHSAA cited “wholesale failure” and a “severe lack of institutional control” in its report, there seemingly could be no turning back. Even in disagreeing with the trustees, though, it would be awfully cold and cruel of me to say the eligible East players don’t deserve the opportunity to play.
Last November, Logan’s DJ Nelson stole a state title from them with his 40-yard touchdown pass in the last minute. This year, they nearly were blocked from the entrance to Rice-Eccles Stadium, just down 1300 East from the school.
The original ruling would have hurt not only the football players, but also cheerleaders, band members and other students who would have loved to join in the fun. We all would have been cheated to some degree, left to wonder how the Leopards would have done against Logan, Timpview or other challengers.
Having said that, it will be tough for anyone to cheer against Herriman next weekend.
This entire episode extends an already bizarre season for East, with a locker-room fire halting the September showdown with 5A power Jordan in the third quarter.
That incident left everybody hanging, and the Leopards’ missing the playoffs would have created an unsatisfying ending of their season. Without East in the field, you just know there would have be an inevitable asterisk attached to the 4A champion.
Unfortunately, any title for the Leopards also would come with its own baggage. It’ll take some clever screenwriting to make this production into any kind of feel-good story.