Sports Law Blog
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Wednesday, January 31, 2007
Sports and Due Process (Or More Looking Over Game Officials' Shoulders)
O.J. Mayo of Huntington (W. VA) High School, purportedly the best high-school player in the country and bound for U.S.C. next fall, played in a high-profile basketball game Tuesday night against Lakewood (CA) Artesia High School. This was one of those increasingly common made-for-TV games; this one was played at Duke's Cameron Indoor Stadium between top-ranked high school teams, neither of which is particularly close to Durham, NC. Mayo scored 19 points before fouling out in Huntington's win.
This is worth mentioning on Sports Law Blog because Mayo needed a court order to play in the game.
Mayo (along with five teammates) was ejected from a game last Friday night. Mayo received two technical fouls, the second for taunting opponents after a second-half dunk. That technical lead to an on-court scuffle between players on both teams. Video is here. After the second technical, Mayo followed the official to the scorer's table; he and the official made some body contact (how much is in dispute) and the official fell to the floor. Under West Virginia Secondary School Activities Commission (SSAC) rules, a player ejected from a game is suspended for the next two games. And a player who in protest makes contact with an official can be suspended for up to one year.
But hours before Tuesday's game, Mayo won a Temporary Restraining Order from Cabel County Circuit Judge Dan O'Hanlon, allowing him to play in the game and prohibiting SSAC from enforcing its suspension rules until a hearing on February 9 to determine what process SSAC must give Mayo before suspending him. Stories here and here.
I have not read the court's order and am working off sports media reports, which often do not accurately capture legal detail. The stories contain pithy comments from one of Mayo's lawyers about how the players "deserve an opportunity to be heard before they are denied the chance of a lifetime because of an arbitrary enforcement of a rule they did not intend to violate." And another lawyer (who also is an assistant coach) insists Mayo did not intend to make contact with the official and, if anything, it was the ref who initiated the contact. You get the idea. I am opining off less-than-complete legal information.
That said, I cannot understand how the court could issue this TRO. I do not see what process Mayo should be entitled to that would allow him to avoid at least a two game suspension.
Take the ejection and put the bumping to one side for a moment. The SSAC rule is clear and (I believe) unequivocal: If you receive two technical fouls and/or are ejected, you sit two games. The only question is whether Mayo was, in fact, ejected because he received two technicals. That fact seems undisputed and indisputable. A hearing or other process from SSAC does nothing to change that. The rule is not being arbitrarily enforced--it kicks in whenever a player is ejected, as Mayo assuredly was. And whether Mayo or the other players intended to violate this rule (the point the attorney/coach made) is an utter non-sequitur; I assume no player ever intends to get two T's or intends to get ejected from a game. Intent is irrelevant to the rule.
So if a hearing will change nothing about the two-game/ejection suspension, the TRO should not have issued. One thing a plaintiff must show in order to get a TRO is that he is "likely to succeed on the merits"--that the claims he is bringing has merit. Mayo is making a due process argument, which means he has to show that he is entitled to some process and that it would make a difference. I do not see how it makes a difference as to this rule.
Unless, of course, Mayo wants a hearing so he can argue to SSAC that it should reverse the referee's decision to give him the second technical. If so, that is an extremely dangerous and bad idea, for reasons similar to what I discuss in an earlier post. Game officials have a difficult enough job without fear that their immediate in-game decisions, such as whether to call a violation, are going to be subject to reversal from above when they call something on the wrong player (a top-5 national star) at the wrong time (on the eve of a mythical national championship game). This is an example of the type of discretionary decision that must be largely immune from review if we want refs to be able to do their jobs. The notion that Mayo has a constitutional due process right to a hearing to ask SSAC to reverse the official's in-game determination would make sports contests ungovernable. This would set a bad precedent.
Now, the potential suspension for bumping the ref is a different story. Whether a bump occurred, whether it was intentional, and whether it was "in protest" all are in dispute and all are necessary for application of the rule. Plus, whether a suspension should occur and its length are within SSAC discretion, probably depending on the severity and intent behind the contact. A hearing is necessary to resolve those factual issues, so Mayo is entitled to some process before a bumping suspension is imposed.
But that alone does not justify the TRO that allowed Mayo to play on Tuesday. It seems that Mayo should have to sit, at a minimum, two games--the Cameron game and one more--as punishment for the ejection. Anything beyond that would be punishment for the bump and he is entitled to a hearing before such additional games are added.
But there was no reason for the court to interfere now. At least no reason beyond everyone wanting to see O.J. Mayo play in that particular game.