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Rules, laws and proportion: Where’s the common sense?

Some rules and regulations are absurd, some interpreted that way. Here are five recent examples, four of them from right here in Minnesota.

An eight-second conversation with this man might have broken one or more NCAA recruiting rules.
REUTERS/Danny Moloshok

Ever get the sense too many laws, regulations, and rules are causing us to leech common sense from a pipe bigger than the one Keystone foes don’t like? Prohibitions which, if they are not absurd on their face, are frequently interpreted that way. 

Mitch Pearlstein
Mitch Pearlstein

Here are five recently reported examples, four of them from right here in Minnesota, but let’s start at Ohio State, where football coach Urban Meyer a while back was having lunch with his old quarterback from Florida, Tim Tebow, when a kid Meyer was trying to recruit called him, as is perfectly acceptable under NCAA rules. In the course of their brief conversation, Meyer told the high-school athlete that Tebow was at the table and the kid understandably asked if he could speak to the former Heisman Trophy winner. 

Based on FBI phone records (I may be making up the FBI part), the kid was on the phone with Tebow for about eight seconds. Nonetheless, Ohio State officials fearful that they might have broken one or more NCAA recruiting rules, felt compelled to self-report the possible violation. Or perhaps it was just a quorum of OSU lawyers who felt compelled, but either way, the kid found the whole situation hilarious and decided to play ball at Louisiana State. 

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Upwards of 40 years ago (I’ve been using numbers like 30 and 40 too often), I had reason to write that NCAA rules are a “Rube Goldberg contraption gone mad.” A venerable institution the NCAA is.

Meanwhile back home, and as extensively reported, school and law enforcement officials double-teamed another high-school athlete, in Rogers, at the very real risk of curtailing his future because of a dumb but surely not grave two-word tweet he had sent — a social-media mistake that he was quick to acknowledge and for which he sought to quickly apologize. But good riddance to the last seven weeks of his senior year, they declared, and also threatened a possible felony charge before being embarrassed back to some semblance of proportion, though by that time the young man had decided to transfer to another school out of the Elk River school district. I would like to say his departure is Rogers High School’s loss more than his own, but that unfortunately is still to be determined, as when for example he goes job hunting.

Then there was the story in the Star Tribune about a woman in St. Cloud who got fired for doing what she had to do when she was denied a bathroom break at the factory where she was a line worker.  The good news is she got her job back after 11 months and the better news is she’s suing the company. Yes, there’s much too much litigiousness in this country, but not when it comes to this case.  May the people who enforced the bathroom break rule the inhumane way they did all have prostate problems in their future.    

Out in the cold — in a swimsuit

And then there was the truly angering story about how educators at Como Park Senior High School in St. Paul forced a 14-year old girl to stand outside in frigid weather, in bare feet and wearing only a swimsuit, during what turned out to be a non-fire. But even if there had been a fire, there was no reason why a teacher or administrator couldn’t have her sit in their car. 

No, wait.  WCCO-TV reported that there is some school-district rule against such things, so the girl stood there with a sweatshirt under what came to be her frost-bitten feet before some grownup had the sense to say hell with the no-car rule, no matter how reasonable it might be when it’s 72 degrees, and let her in a vehicle.    

I would like to think I have a decent understanding of bureaucratic complexities and similar empathy for the people who have to make intricate organizations work. I recognize that many rules that might sound strange on their face actually have sound reasons behind them. I’ve read far more than any healthy share of organizational theory in my life, and for heaven’s sakes, I have a doctorate in educational administration. But how can I put this diplomatically: The educators who forced that 14-year-old girl to freeze were idiots that day, incapable of recognizing that while there are times for dogmatically following what the manual says, this emphatically wasn’t one of them. 

Could you imagine if that girl had been your daughter?  If she were mine, after screaming my head off I’d be out for theirs.    

Aren’t there ways short of a new law?

And finally, as my American Experiment colleague Kathy Kersten noted in the Star Tribune again last week, there’s the bullying bill currently being considered by legislators in St. Paul. Lest there be any confusion Kathy and I, and everyone in this shop, are rigorously opposed to the bullying of anyone in school, and by anyone we mean everyone. But are we really so lacking in tools to stop jerks from bullying that we need a whole new bureaucratic superstructure? 

I don’t want to be terribly unprogressive about this, but at what point is it insufficient for a principal to send a bullying student to detention for two weeks, and if he bullies again to inform him and his parents he’ll be watching all the daytime ESPN he’s always fantasized about because he won’t be a student at that school anymore? Sounds fair and effective to me. 

Oh, shoot.  I just remembered, back from graduate school. There are already loads of mandated rigamarole against taking those steps, too. 

Mitch Pearlstein is founder and president of Center of the American Experiment.


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