Have you read the story of the high school football team in St. Louis, Missouri, that was caught playing an ineligible player in their season opener?
As best I can tell from numerous accounts of the story, when Cardinal Ritter College Prep high school competed in the state championship football game last year, one of their tenth-grade players, Bill Jackson, was ejected from the game. Jackson’s removal also meant that he would be ineligible to play in the next game as well.
High school athletes all over the country have incurred the same punishment, usually for a flagrant or repeated violation of a serious rule. Now, granted in the heat of competition, even officials make mistakes.
On a local level, during a state championship game, I have personally seen this particular punishment inflicted on a player whose actions were not at all worthy of such a dire call. I have even seen senior players miss their last high school sporting events due to such a punishment. And as harsh as that seems, the athletes still learned a valuable lesson in sportsmanship and obedience to authority.
I have also known local athletes who received such a punishment in the last game of the season and subsequently missed their opening game in the next season of play.
That was precisely the case with Bill Jackson. He was supposed to miss the Lions’ opening game of their 2019 football season. Instead, he donned a jersey with another number (24) and was listed on the roster as Marvin Burks, a freshman at Cardinal Ritter.
The Lions won their season opener, and Burks was even touted by unsuspecting local sportscasters as a young athlete with promise, one to watch.
But Burks was never a part of the roster again. Instead, Jackson donned his original #4 jersey during the second game of the season. And his coach, Brandon Gregory, even acknowledged that Jackson was deservedly back after fully paying his dues.
Sure enough, Jackson played great during the second game of the season, and his team won. In fact, the Lions continued undefeated for the 2019 season, with 7 wins and no losses—until a shocking truth was discovered.
Another player on an opposing team recognized Marvin Burks as Bill Jackson in a video replay of the Lions’ first game of the season. And during a subsequent investigation, Jackson’s arm tattoos undeniably gave him away in the game film footage
(Don’t even get me started on that tangent. Why in the world does a 16-year-old kid need costly, lifetime tattoos in the first place?)
But back to the story, when the coach of Cardinal Ritter was confronted with this accusation, he still refused to come clean. Instead, he said their players often changed jersey numbers.
Wait a minute, Coach Gregory…do your players also change their names in the printed football rosters when they change their jersey numbers?
And by the way, most high school athletes would balk before changing their jersey numbers. In fact, college athletes will often ask to continue wearing their high school jersey number if at all possible.
So, I call FOUL on this excuse, Coach Gregory.
But I will hand it to Tamiko Armstead, the president of Ritter Cardinal. When faced with the truth of her team’s lies, she shut down the entire football program, forfeited their undefeated season, and fired the entire coaching staff.
Wow! She ain’t playin’ around.
After the Missouri State High School Activities Association formally accepted Cardinal Ritter’s self-imposed sanctions, Armstead added that she is uncertain when football will be a priority again at Cardinal Ritter.
Some people might say Armstead went overboard and that she punished the entire team for one bad decision. That is true. An entire team is suffering the heartbreaking consequences for one mistake. In fact, senior athletes on the team might even lose collegiate scholarship offers.
Sadly, the effect of sin is often like that in nature. Its impact can be far-reaching, hurting untold innocent people.
And the truth is, every player out there, every coach, and even some parents recognized that Marvin Burks was really Bill Jackson. So, Cardinal Ritter cheated, with purpose and forethought.
Now, maybe they felt justified because of a bad call, or even an entirely bad game in the prior championship. Maybe that feeling of injustice kind of snowballed from a fleeting thought to action, with coaches and other adults afraid to voice opposition to the idea.
Or maybe the coaches all know what a good kid Bill Jackson really is, and maybe they thought he did not deserve such a harsh punishment.
Whatever the case, the Cardinal Ritter coaches still made a conscious choice to cheat. And in the process, they taught their players a lesson that was even more dangerous than the actual act of cheating.
Ultimately, each and every adult that knew about this deceit and did not speak up about it was complicit in teaching these young people that the end justifies any and all means.
Like the biblical story of Esau, Coach Gregory and his staff members were so hungry for something tangible that they forgot the intangible. They sold their birthright of integrity for a bowl – a beautiful, golden championship bowl trophy.
And that is exactly why this entire scenario in St. Louis is so troubling.
These coaches and every adult involved let winning become their ultimate goal. And in doing so, they lost sight of their highest calling and the ultimate prize—the souls of every young man on that team.
I press toward the mark for the prize of the high calling of God in Christ Jesus (Philippians 3:14).