Buffington's DQ: The Controversy Broken Down

Brody Buffington (Catoctin) and his 4x200 team created quite the controversy (again) at the MPSSAA State Championships. Buffington anchored the 4x200 relay and received the baton in second place. He easily pulled into first early during his leg and put his hand up in celebration about 15 meters from the finish line. He then extended his hands like an airplane as he crossed the line, winning the race.  

(Watch the end of the race resulting in the DQ)

Back in February, he did a similar move in the 300m dash at the 1A West Regional meet. In that race, he looked back at his opponents (who happened to also be his teammates) before putting his hands up in celebration prior to the line. 

In both cases the officials disqualified Buffington, citing rule 4.6.2. Talking to coaches, officials, and athletes over the past week, there are people who felt strongly about both sides of the call. Below we will cite the exact rule that was broken, lay out both arguments for each side, and maybe a possible remedy going forward.

The Rule: What is confusing is that there are two rules that are very similar and often confused when talking about this issue. The rule that was cited when Buffington was DQ'd in the 4x200 was Rule 4.6.2. There is also rule 4.6.1, which is similar. Here is the exact text of both rules

4.6.1 - Unsporting conduct is behavior that is unethical or dishonorable. It includes but is not limited to disrespectfully addressing an official, any flagrant behavior, intentional contact, taunting, criticizing, or using profanity directed towards someone. This shall apply to all coaches, contestants, and other team/school personnel. 
PENALTY: Disqualification From that event and further competition in the meet. disqualification of a coach or other school Personnel shall be from further involvement in the meat.
The NHFS  disapproves of any form of taunting that is intended or designed to embarrass ridicule or demean others under any circumstance.
 no participant team Personnel coach or administrator shall use alcohol or any form of tobacco products (e-cigarettes or similar items) beginning with the arrival at the competition site until departure following the completion of the contest
4.6.2 - Unacceptable conduct by a competitor includes but is not limited to willful failure to follow the directions of a meet official, using profanity that is not directed at someone or any action that could bring discredit to the individual or the competitor's school.
PENALTY: Disqualification from the event.

After reading both rules, 4.6.1 is more serious, and as a result, the penalty is disqualification from the entire meet, not just the event. It's important to note that Buffington was DQ'd with rule 4.6.2 in both of his races. In both situations, officials deemed that his actions were "unacceptable conduct" not "unsporting" or "unsportsmanlike" conduct. This is an important distinction and one that often gets confused when talking about the rule. 

Looking at rule 4.6.2, is broken down into 3 parts. The first is a willful failure to follow the directions of a meet official. While he did not purposefully disregard a meet official, he may have been in violation of this rule since MPSSAA Meet Directors told coaches at the State coaches meeting that athletes need to adhere to the state bulletin and NFHS rules. This however would seem to be a bit of a stretch. This rule seems to be in place when a meet official asks a specific competitor to do something, and they disregard it. For example, blocks were supplied at the state meet, and athletes could not bring their own. If an athlete brought their own, was told by an official they couldn't use their own blocks, and they ignored the official, this would be grounds for DQ from the event. The MPSSAA State Track Bulletin does not mention unsportsmanlike conduct, and the NFHS Rule book states that Sportsmanship should be a "Point of Emphasis" for the 22-23 season. It states the following, 

Good sporting behavior is one of the fundamental ingredients to the continued success and enjoyment of education-based high school sports and activities. In fact, in the 103-year history of organized high school sports in the United States, good sportsmanship has been one of the most important outcomes of high school activity programs.

NFHS playing rules are written to encourage sportsmanship. Participation in these programs should promote respect, integrity and sportsmanship. However, for these ideals to occur, everyone involved in these programs must be doing their part.

The NFHS is concerned that unsporting behavior in education-based athletics has increased across all sports. As a result, the NFHS has made sportsmanship the No. 1 Point of Emphasis for the 2022-23 school year.

Sportsmanship, or good sporting behavior, is about treating one another with respect and exhibiting appropriate behavior. It is about being fair, honest and caring. When these types of appropriate behavior occur, competitive play is more enjoyable for everyone. 

Coaches set the tone at athletic contests with their display of sportsmanship. If these individuals act in a sportsmanlike manner, their behavior sets the tone for players, spectators and others. If coaches, however, are complaining constantly about the decision of contest officials, spectators are more likely to do the same.

There must be a collaborative, working relationship between contest officials and game administration to promote good sportsmanship and safely conduct the contest. Everyone has their roles to play in creating a positive, sportsmanlike atmosphere at contests.

Officials should focus on the actions of players, coaches and other bench/sideline personnel. A positive, open line of communication between officials and coaches ultimately results in a better contest for everyone involved.

High school sports and other activities exist to lift people up, not demean or tear people down. The goal is to treat everyone fairly and treat each other with respect. Any speech or harassment that is insulting, demeaning or hurtful will not be tolerated.

High schools must establish a culture that values the worth of every single person - both players on the school's team and players on the opposing team. There must be a no-tolerance policy regarding behavior that shows disrespect for another individual.

Good sports win with humility, lose with grace and do both with dignity. It takes the efforts of everyone every day to ensure that sportsmanship remains one of the top priorities in education-based activity programs.

While it does mention things like respect, integrity, and sportsmanship, it is very vague about how they apply to specific sports such as track, and what the penalty should be when they occur. 

The second part speaks to profanity. There was no indication that Buffington used profanity in either of these DQ'd races. 

The third part is also a reason he could have been disqualified, which mentions any action that could bring discredit to the individual or the competitor's school. If an official thought that Buffintons hand in the air was "bringing discredit to the individual or their school" then he would have been rightfully disqualified. This part seemed to be the part most talked about over the days that followed the DQ. and will be the basis of the Pro / Con argument below. 

The Argument Against Buffington.

The easiest argument is the fact that he should have known better. This was the second time he was DQ'd. Most people (including professional track athletes and personalities on social media) thought that the DQ during his 300m race was a bit of an overreach and a lot disagreed with the call. But in the spring, Buffington should have known that he could get DQ'd for something similar, and as the fastest runner in the state, he should have known that all eyes would be on him. It's hard to feel bad for him the second time around. 

Another argument against Buffington was that he put his hands up WELL before the line. Maybe it would have been less of an issue if he put his hand up 5 or 10 meters before the line, or just after the line, but he put his hand up about 15 meters before the line. Some thought this was disrespectful towards the other competitors in that race. If you think that putting your arm up 15 meters out should NOT have been a DQ, would there be a line somewhere in which you thought it would be a DQ? What if he put his arm up with 100 meters to go? What if when he received the baton he already had the other arm up and ran the whole 200-meter leg with one arm in the air? That surely should be a disqualifiable action. So where should we draw the line? Maybe 15 meters is a good line to draw?

I think it's also important to mention that officials are put in a tough spot here. The rule is very ambiguous (more on that later) and officials are trying to use their best judgment to deem what is unacceptable conduct. If you put yourself in the official's shoes during the 4x200, is it that much of a stretch to think, "Buffington has been DQ'd for this before, coaches were told to talk to their teams about good sportsmanship, and here he is 15 meters out putting his hands up in a runaway victory." 

On a little bit of a side note, if you think this particular official was "out to get" Buffington, you may be wrong after watching his 100m prelims at the East Coast International Showcase a few weeks earlier. The same official lets Buffington get away with what appears to be a very obvious false start. Personally knowing the official who made the call, I don't believe he was targeting Buffington. 

The Argument in Favor of Buffington.

There are a few different ways to look at it. One question I have asked people when speaking to them about this is what would a non-track person think about this DQ if they watched the race? Would they think it's DQ-worthy or unsportsmanlike? I have to think that person would say no. When watching other high school, college, or professional sports, this celebration pails in comparison to those. Buffington's hand was in the air for 1.6 seconds. Is raising your arm for 1.6 seconds before the finish line really a disqualifiable offense?

While I don't think it's fair to compare high school celebrations with those of college or professional athletes, it is fair to compare them to other high school sports. If a football player returns a punt for a touchdown and puts his hands up 10 yards from the endzone, would that be DQ or a flag? Football coaches I talked to have told me no. They did however mention that endzone touchdown celebrations have been given penalties before. In my experience, just being on the sidelines of football games, there seems to be a lot of smack talk, including profanity, from players and coaches, that doesn't seem to be called often for a penalty.

If a Basketball player steals a pass and has a runaway monster dunk, should that be a DQ or foul when he could have just done a layup? Basketball coaches tell me no. They did tell me there are rules against dunking during warm-ups, but not during the game. 

If a baseball player hits a game-winning home run and as he rounds third he puts his hand up in celebration and his teammates are at home plate, would he be DQ'd or called out? Here is a video, courtesy of Howard High's Baseball Twitter Account, when Howard won the 4A Baseball State Championship in walk-off fashion. Should the umpire here deem this unacceptable conduct, and called the batter out?

Is the act of Buffington putting his hand up well before the line the reason he should be DQ'd. What if he put his hand up after the line? 5 meters before the line? 10 meters before the line? Buffington never looked back in the most recent DQ'd. If he were passed with 10m to go while his hands were up would he still have been DQ'd? Was the reason he was DQ'd because he won?

To add to that point would any other athlete have been DQ'd for a similar act? Would a runner who is about to win the 3200 and who put his hands up as he was approaching the line have been DQ'd? What about a pole vaulter who puts his hands up and yells in celebration after he clears the bar and is on the way down? I have seen that happen multiple times. It's hard to tell if these should be disqualifiable, but they have certainly all occurred at Regional and State meets in recent years. 

To counter the above point, that Brody should have known better due to the first DQ. Any rule should stand alone in regard to its enforcement. Athletes shouldn't have a rule called against them more easily just because they had broken the rule before. They either broke it, or they didn't. I fully understand people saying that he should have known better due to the first DQ, but when looking strictly at the enforcement of the rule, his DQ during the Indoor season should have no bearing on the outdoor season. 

One final point concerns celebrations that happen during regular season meets. it seems other celebrations, during the previous state meets, and during meets all throughout the season did not receive this same penalty. 

There is a note in the MPSSAA Track and Field Bulletin that states,

"Officials do a disservice to the sport and competitors when they set aside rules that apply to illegal uniforms or permit unsportsmanlike acts because they don't want to appear to be "too picky" or feel that "it is not a major meet". When those athletes participate in a major competition where the rules are enforced according to the code, they think that the rules are unfair or that they should have been warned, etc. because "no one called me on this all year". All too often, parents, coaches, and the media argue that the rules are unfair and that officials don't consider how devastating it is to an athlete disqualified in a major meet because of a thrown baton or an illegal uniform. Certainly, it should not happen. Although such disqualifications are ultimately the responsibility of the athlete and coach, meet officials who tolerated the illegal action during the season also must assume some responsibility."

It seems this is also an issue. Do Officials have responsibilities when celebrations like this are not called during the year and are only called during the Regional and State Championships? At the very least this needs to come up at the annual officials meeting. 

A Way Forward 

I've gone back and forth on this issue myself, but one thing I have always felt was true was the fact that the ambiguity of this rule makes it very hard if not impossible to rule on consistently. Officials have different opinions on what "unacceptable conduct" is. The MPSSAA and NFHS don't offer specific examples in regards to this situation with putting your hands up prior to finishing a race. Similar situations in other sports don't get the same penalty as it seems Track and Field does. There needs to be more clarification on this rule with specific examples. If the NFHS and MPSSAA think it's unacceptable to put your hands up before the line, then it would be really helpful to list that in the rule book or state bulletin. This way coaches can have those conversations with their athletes and athletes would have a much clearer understanding. 

There are always going to be some grey areas with this rule since it is a judgment decision, however, since this specific instance, putting your hands up prior to crossing the line, has now occurred twice a major meets, resulting in national attention, there needs to be more specifics about this one aspect of the rule. 

Our sport and our State have been on the wrong end of a lot of negative media attention on this topic. Since it has now happened twice, leadership in our sport should bring this up at annual off-season meetings and discuss ways to make this easier for officials to determine what should be disqualifiable, and easier for coaches to have conversations with their athletes about what is allowed and what is not. 

Personally, I feel there needs to be some room for a little bit of raw excitement, emotion, and joy when winning a state championship. To me, putting your hand up when you come from behind and win a state championship relay for you and your teammates should not be grounds for a DQ. There was no profanity, there was no insulting of other teams or officials, and there were no egregious actions. 

With that said if there was a rule that clearly states that you may be disqualified for celebration prior to finishing your race, then I would be much more on board with this DQ. I hope those who lead our sport, nationally, and especially in Maryland, have that conversation soon. 

Zack Dickerson

MileSplit Maryland Editor.