Joe Davidson

Del Oro forfeits section, NorCal football titles: Does punishment fit crime?

Del Oro stuns Central Catholic in final minutes

Del Oro stuns Central Catholic in final minutes after Golden Eagles Matthew Smart recovers and returns a Raiders fumble for a touchdown.
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Del Oro stuns Central Catholic in final minutes after Golden Eagles Matthew Smart recovers and returns a Raiders fumble for a touchdown.

Jeff Walters summoned his football team to the campus library for a mandatory 3 p.m. meeting Thursday afternoon.

The Del Oro High School football coach was greeted by a sea of curious faces, and a championship glow from a spirited playoff run last month soon turned dour. Players departed with expressions of astonishment, anger and a bit of grief.

Because the Placer County school unknowingly used an ineligible player in a playoff blowout - a clerical oversight - the Golden Eagles must surrender their hard-earned winnings.

Del Oro self-reported the violation. The 2018 Sac-Joaquin Section Division II pennant and CIF Northern California Division I-A trophy must now be turned into the state’s governing offices.

The championship patches that went with the section triumph? If those are stitched onto letterman’s jackets, they will remain, because good luck prying that off the chest of an agitated defensive tackle.

Del Oro’s last-second 20-17 section-clinching win over Central Catholic of Modesto on Dec. 1 at Sacramento State will now be listed on the section site as “vacated.” That was the program’s 12th such banner.

And “vacated” will be listed in the CIF record book for the 14-13 NorCal win Del Oro put on Saint Francis of Mountain View in Loomis on Dec. 7. Del Oro lost to Grace Brethren of Simi Valley on Dec. 14 in the state final in Norwalk.

“The guys took the news with their heads held high, like the champions they are,” Walters said. “They won those games on the field, and they banded together in tough moments, and those cannot be taken away.

“It’s hard to make sense of something like this. Trying to explain it to my 6-year-old daughter ... and she’s even hurt. We live in a world of shades of gray, and we were talking something that seemed so minor, so black and white. I don’t want our guys to hurt.”

A section executive committee denied Del Oro’s appeal, the argument being the punishment hardly fits the crime.

And it’s true. It’s an exceedingly harsh sanction to place on a program that was felled by a clerical error.

Jesuit can speak of experience on this, too.

The Marauders had perhaps their most talented team since opening in 1963, but their two section playoff blowout wins were later forfeited due to a junior varsity call-up who played a handful of downs. He was not cleared to play varsity football, and thus, the honest error and forfeits.

That, too, seems excessive, as the Jesuit players did no wrong. But the section office has to stand by its bylaws, even if the spirit of them seem deeply flawed.

How do students learn from such mistakes? By having wins erased? How do communities embrace the CIF when these sorts of punishments are handed down? And what does it say of rival programs that revel in this sort of championship fall as they either mount their ethical high horses in an effort to rat out programs or go to social media to gloat?

And isn’t education supposed to be about empathy and fairness, at least to some degree?

For Del Oro, a non-impact JV player was called up for a varsity playoff game, and he raced down field on one kickoff during a running-clock rout of Tracy without making a play, and it ends like this?

The villain here isn’t Mike Garrison. The section commissioner is enforcing the rules proposed and passed by the section’s member schools.

Garrison grimaces at this sort of thing. Is there wiggle room to tweak such a bylaw? He invites member schools to discuss it at a grass-roots level. He cannot just hammer in new bylaws on the fly.

It’s the first time since the section started football championship play in 1970 that a title in any division has been vacated.

“The sad thing about this whole thing is the Del Oro kids paid a price over something they had no control over,” Garrison said. “When I first heard what happened with Del Oro, I thought, ‘Oh, my God.’ I dread these.

“But these are bylaws passed by the schools over the years, and some may say it’s an archaic rule. I would understand that argument, but the rule is if an ineligible kid participates in a game, a team must forfeit that game. There’s nothing in the bylaws that say how much a kid plays, or if he had an impact in it.”

Garrison added, “I feel terrible for what we had to do. I hate the feeling of the death sentence, and that’s what it feels like.”

It’s on member schools and those on any executive appeals committee, often retired administrators or coaches, to enforce change here. Update archaic rules with zero room for empathy, similar to what other sections in the state do in similar instances.

For Del Oro and Jesuit, a more fitting punishment would be to sit the head coach for a game or two at the start of next season. Or take away three practice days, or five. Or place the program on probation.

These are the sorts of suggestions made by Dan Gayaldo, too. The outgoing Del Oro principal has been a coach, athletic director and administrator for decades. He’s been in education to see kids achieve, not grieve.

“I feel absolutely sick about this,” Gayaldo said. “It feels like an administrative error, and it’s not the fault of the players. I feel very responsible we have to vacate our titles. One down, in the fourth quarter of a running clock, which means the game is not competitive. ... Wow.

“I’ve known Mike Garrison for a zillion years. We gave all the options of what we thought was fair punishment, but the bylaws of the section are clear. I’m a rules guy, but punishment has to have some flexibility for simple mistakes.

“Just a tough, tough day.”

Reputations unfairly take a hit on these sorts of matters, too.

Any notion that Del Oro or Jesuit attempted to bend rules, to be deceptive, would be wrong. No one cheats by using seldom-used players in garbage time.

Said Central Catholic running back Dawaiian McNeely to the Modesto Bee on whether the section title should now go to his team, “We thought we should honestly get it. Yeah, we lost. It was a good game, but (Del Oro) cheated. It doesn’t matter how - cheating is cheating. We didn’t cheat to get to that point.”

Follow The Bee’s Joe Davidson: jdavidson@sacbee.com, @SacBee_JoeD, sacbee.com/high-school.

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