Let the Boys Run

Let the Boys Run

Photo by Jan Figueroa (https://www.janfigcreations.com/)

In a night full of semifinals, it’s unfortunate that the story we’ll likely remember most is about a guy who didn’t make it through (but probably should have).  In the dusty swelter of an Austin evening, the NCAA men ran 3 heats of the 800m semis, each exciting in its own way.  Even without controversy, however, the first would probably have been the one in the headlines.

Will Sumner, Georgia’s freshman mid-D star, ran away with the thing.  He established himself as basically untouchable from 500m on and cruised his way to a 1:46.00 PB.  10m or so behind him was where the real racing happened, with a pack of men all jockeying to try and finish second (and thus procure an auto-qualifier for the Finals).  Texas’ Crayton Carrozza, Ole Miss’ Tiarnan Crorken, and Virginia’s Conor Murphy were all in contention, but it was Sam Ellis who kicked his way to a big Q.  Ellis ran smart, waiting for the right moment and moving hard with 100 to go.  Carrozza and Crorken both qualified for the finals anyway.  It was a great race.  And, for a while, that was all there was to it.

Then, right as the night was wrapping up, the news broke: Ellis had been DQed.  

“As we were getting on the bus, we saw that it was protested,” Washington coach Andy Powell told LetsRun.  “It was the Long Beach State coach, Andy [Sythe], put in a protest against Sam Ellis and said that he cut somebody off.”  

DQs for cut-offs in the 800m are uncommon at this level, but certainly not unheard of.  What makes this so unusual is that Ellis wasn’t disqualified for cutting anyone off, and, crucially, Long Beach State didn’t even have anyone in his heat.  

First, let’s get the legalese out of the way.  Ellis’ DQ is officially listed as a violation of rule 15.5-2b, which states that any athlete who “in a race run on a curve, steps on or over the lane line to the left with two consecutive steps of either both feet or a single foot,” is to be disqualified.  Apparently, Sam Ellis stepped on the lane line.

This, notably, is not what Coach Sythe actually protested.  The protest – at least according to Andy Powell – was over Ellis supposedly cutting someone off.  This means the meet officials reviewed the footage after the protest, didn’t find any evidence to support it, but found another minor violation and then decided to disqualify Ellis for that, instead.  This is, if you’ll forgive me for using a technical term, bullshit.

Remember, the two guys behind Sam Ellis still qualified for the final, meaning that – whatever miniscule time advantage Ellis supposedly gained by running a few steps on the lane line – he still would have qualified.  

The fact that Long Beach State didn’t even have a runner in the race takes this into entirely new territory.  Long Beach had one runner in the meet – Kash Powell (no relation to Andy), who ran heat 2 of the 800m semis.  Powell finished 5th in his heat, and 16th overall (post-Ellis-DQ).  A solid performance, but well outside of finals contention.  This raises the obvious question:  why the hell did Powell’s coach, Andy Sythe, feel compelled to get a random runner in another heat disqualified over a violation that, apparently, didn’t even happen?  

There are only three real options here: 

  1. An honest mistake
  2. Extreme sticklerism
  3. Spite

In his interview with LetsRun, Powell himself raised the possibility that the protest could have been a mistake.  “I honestly think maybe the Long Beach guy just… meant to put heat [2] and put heat 1, ‘cause I can’t think of what human would look at another heat and do that.  I’m sure he feels terrible.”

We reached out to Coach Sythe for comment, but at this point no one’s gotten back to us.  

So maybe it was just a matter of paperwork.  In the case of either sticklerism or spite, however, I can only say: come on, man. 

Some blame, of course, falls on the meet officials.  Technicalities aside, to receive a questionable protest, review the tapes, and then DQ an athlete for a different, even more tenuous infraction, is just silly.  But the real villain here is the NCAA’s protest procedure.

If I may invoke the official NCAA rule book once more, rule 13.7-1b states that “Any… protest may be immediate and oral by a competitor or a competitor’s coach in order to protect and preserve evidence used in determining an appropriately filed written protest. Any communication by the athlete that requests the preservation of the evidence shall be deemed a protest.”  Andy Powell, on the other hand, told LetsRun that a protest can be filed by pretty much anyone with $100 cash (that’s a fee, not a bribe).  Presumably, the rationale here is that a protest policy this wide-open prevents bureaucratic hangups, and that it has no effect on “rule-abiding” athletes anyway.  But a situation like Ellis’ – no matter Coach Sythe’s motivation – demonstrates the fundamental problem with this policy.  It opens the door for basic paperwork mistakes with big repercussions, and it lays a clear path for sticklerism and spite.  

The thing is, Sam Ellis will be fine.  His long-term focus is on the 1500m anyway, and Coach Powell called this a “tune-up” for USAs.  But it’s never fun to see an athlete knocked out over a technicality – especially in a national championship.  I guess I’m a Sam Ellis fan now.  If you ask me, he earned a spot in that final.  

David Lefkowitz

David Lefkowitz is a journalist and slowpoke in Richmond, Virginia. An alum of William & Mary's Team Blitz and a monumental track nerd, you can follow David on Twitter at @gymshortsdave

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