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High School Runner Disqualified After 3rd Place Finish For Headband With Writing

The website of the West Forsyth High School track program with the words "Fear the Fro!" to show support for senior runner John Green, who was disqualified for wearing a headband during the state championship meet.
Sreen shot by NPR

A high school runner was disqualified after finishing third in the Georgia cross-country AAAAA state championship race for wearing a headband with writing on it.

John Green, a senior at West Forsyth High School, ran the race wearing a white headband with a Bible verse written on it. After the race, he was disqualified for a uniform violation. Though the school appealed the disqualification, the Georgia High School Association has said the decision will stand.

Now a discussion is taking place about the fairness of the rule and its enforcement, unnecessary bureaucracy, and even religious freedom.

Rep. Doug Collins, R-Ga., tweeted: "All over a headband with a Bible verse on it? #religious freedom" with a link to a Fox News op-ed.

The Forsyth County News reported that "according to West head coach Clayton Tillery and others involved in the West program, two GHSA officials cleared Green's headband before the race. Then, a third man who was not in an official uniform or credentialed made a comment about the headband at the starting line and walked away."

The GHSA released a statement disputing the series of events and saying the decision to disqualify Green was a matter of uniform code only.

"First, let's be completely clear that this disqualification had nothing to do with what was written on the athlete's headband. The fact that it was of a religious nature did not enter into the decision whatsoever.

"Also, despite published reports to the contrary, the athlete and his coach were informed before the start of the race that the headband in question was illegal and could not be worn during the race.

"After being informed that the headband was illegal, the athlete removed the headband and the meet referee assumed he would run the race without it. However, at some point after that, the coach and the athlete made the decision to ignore the warning and the headband was put back on. Since the athlete then ran the race with apparel that had already been ruled illegal, there was no choice but to issue a disqualification."

It also included a quote from the referee who disqualified him:

"I was called to the start line by the clerk concerning the headband. It was a white headband with large black letters written on it. The coach said he could turn it inside-out and make it legal. He did so, and the writing was still very visible. The rule said the item had to be unadorned except for a logo, and this clearly was not the case. I told the coach and the athlete that he could not wear the headband during the competition. The athlete took it off — neither the coach nor athlete were happy — and I left. When I got back to the finish area, I noticed the athlete had a white headband on. So, when I saw him come down the finish hill, I went inside the finish corral to watch him finish, and he had the same headband on. I told the timer to DQ him, I paged the coach, and told the coach of the disqualification."

Green and his coaches reportedly felt that Green's long hair could pose a safety risk if it wasn't secured with the headband, especially as the course was soggy. Forsyth County Schools responded to the denial of their appeal with the following statement:

"Forsyth County Schools received GHSA's statement on our appeal and we are disappointed with their decision. We stand behind our coach and runner. Forsyth County Schools has no reason to believe that they are not being truthful in regards to the events surrounding this disqualification, Clayton Tillery is a successful veteran coach with high moral and ethical standards. Additionally, John Green has had a phenomenal career at West Forsyth High School over the past four years and we appreciate his family's long term support of our cross country program."

Despite the disqualification, Green was named to the Atlanta Track Club's 2015 All-Metro High School Cross Country Team.

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