A Kentucky high school student dropped out of a regional cross country meet last weekend after race officials would not allow her to change her bib number, which was supposed to be "666," on the day of the event.
Codie Thacker, a junior at Whitley County High School, is one of the best runners on her cross country team, according to her coach, Gina Croley. She trained for months to prepare for regionals, which for many runners is the culmination of the entire season, unless they qualify for the state meet.
Croley says she received an email several days before the meet that said which numbers were assigned to her team – each of her runners had a number in the 660s – but she didn't pay much attention to the numbers because they've never before caused a problem. On Saturday morning, the day of the meet, however, she realized there could be an issue.
"When I printed it out and actually saw the number, I was like, 'Woah, she's not going to wear that number,'" said Croley.
Thacker said she couldn't in good conscience wear the number. After arriving at the meet, she and Croley discussed the matter with the head official from the Kentucky High School Athletic Association before the race.
According to Croley, Thacker told the official that the Bible says the number 666 is the mark of the beast, and that wearing it was against her religious beliefs. When Croley asked the official if he could change the number, she says, he simply told her no and walked away without an explanation.
Croley says she spoke with two other people about making the change but was unsuccessful. Thacker ultimately decided to drop out of the race.
"Codie still went to the start line with her team, and she gathered them in a circle and led them in prayer and waited until the gun went off," said Croley. "And she was with me everywhere on the course, cheering her teammates on."
The cross country meet official says he was only told that Thacker "didn't like" the bib number and says nothing was mentioned about her objection being religious in nature, according to a statement released Wednesday by the KHSAA. The official says he then informed the girl and her coach that it was too close to the start of her race to change the number.
But Croley says each time they asked someone about changing the number they said they were doing so for religious reasons. Not to mention, she says, it is widely understood that the number 666 holds negative connotations for Christians.
"In the past, the KHSAA and its contest officials have made exceptions to such things as uniform codes for religious reasons when that information is made known to the Association or its officials in a timely manner, and have also accommodated other special requests allowed within the adopted contest rules," KHSAA Commissioner Julian Tackett said in a statement. "It is unfortunate that the student-athlete's motivation and beliefs were apparently not made clear to the meet official on site by either the athlete or the coach, and equally as unfortunate that the meet official did not ask further questions about the reasoning."
He added, "The head coach had ample time to review the entry list and inform the meet officials of any issues. While one cannot assume universal beliefs in these types of instances, there were opportunities to adjust things had communication been better on all sides. In the end, it's unfortunate that this preventable incident occurred."
Whitley County Athletic Director Mike Campbell also offered a statement about the incident.
"We certainly regret that this situation occurred and that the student athlete involved was unable to participate in the Regional Cross Country Meet," said Campbell. "We support one hundred percent her decision to put her religious beliefs first. It appears that poor communication between the adults involved led to this unfortunate event. We appreciate Commissioner Tackett and the KHSAA reaching out to our district to express their concern and regret over this difficult circumstance."
Croley, an elementary school health and physical education teacher who has coached cross country for four years, says she knows of no rule in the KHSAA bylaws that states a coach should, if necessary, make an appeal for a different bib number before race day.
"If it's technologically possible at all they should have changed it," said Croley.
She also says the other girls on the team were supportive of Thacker's decision.
"I just wish that her request would have been honored, but at the same time I've told her that I feel like she is a light in a world of darkness right now," she said.