Helias runner loses eligibility over pro-life relay, but not his conscience

James Vignola runs in the LIFE Runners A-Cross the Country Pro-Life Relay. The freshman from Helias Catholic High School in Jefferson City lost a year of track and cross country eligibility in Missouri by taking part in the non-competitive fundraiser.

A Helias Catholic High School freshman was ruled ineligible from participating in high school sports for up to a year because he ran in what the Missouri High School Activities Association (MSHSAA) considers a "non-school competition."

Fifteen-year-old James Vignola ran nearly seven miles near Boonville in the LIFE Runners A-Cross the Country Pro-Life Relay. He knew going into the run that it would affect his cross country and track careers at Helias.

"I thought it was the right thing to do, and my conscience was telling me to do it," he said.

MSHSAA eligibility standards state, "You may not practice for, or participate with, a non-school team or in any organized non-school athletic competition and for your school team in the same sport during the school sport season."

The LIFE Runners event is considered "non-school competition," and James was currently in the track season at the parochial school in Jefferson City.

The National LIFE Runners team prays, runs, raises money for pregnancy help centers and builds awareness on the issue of abortion.

The A-Cross the Country Pro-Life Relay is a 4,000-mile relay that began Feb. 13 in Brooklyn and San Francisco. Various LIFE Runners across the country run portions of the race. The National LIFE Runners Mid-Missouri chapter ran the portion from High Hill to Higginsville March 12-14. Both ends of the relay are scheduled to meet and end the relay in Sioux Falls, S.D., on March 24.

Jim Vignola, James' father, said James was told at a track meeting prior to the season that the LIFE Runners event he had signed up for would disqualify him from school athletics.

James said what bothers him most is that the Pro-Life Relay wasn't a competition.

"It is an organized event, but I don't see how it gives players an advantage, unless I'm competing against someone," James said.

Anne Carmichael, Mid-Missouri chapter leader of the National LIFE Runners, said the relay is in no way a competition.

"It was about raising awareness, sacrifice and prayer," she said. "James was so humble, too."

James said he has received a lot of support at school for his decision.

"They're very proud of me," he said of his classmates. "They think it was the right thing to do, but were shocked I chose to do this and stand up to MSHSAA."

James is in the process of appealing MSHSAA's punishment, but not the association's decision. He wants the wording of the eligibility standard to be changed.

"Once a self-report has been made by a school, they can submit to our office and request a lesser penalty and offer what their request would be," said Jason West, communications director for MSHSAA. "It gets submitted in writing to our executive director, and he decides yes or no.

"The school can then appeal (the director's) decision to the (MSHSAA) appeals committee."

Doug Light, Helias athletic director, said he's confident the appeal will go through.

"This type of thing doesn't happen often, but does come up from time to time," Light said.

He said he thinks this particular eligibility standard is in place to make sure high school athletes are fresh and excited to compete during practice and games.

Even though he's ineligible to run for Helias, James said he continues to run regularly, and he doesn't regret his decision to support pro-life.

"I don't like how they say it's a woman's right to kill a baby," he said. "I want to offer support for the unborn who don't have a say."