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Wednesday, January 07, 2015
Oklahoma Courts are not the Field to Remedy a High School Football Referee Blunder
While there are some out there claiming that the recent “phantom flag” against the Dallas Cowboys was the right call, the majority of both fans and analysts (and not just those based in Detroit) are crying foul. While the Lions will not get a replay of the game, the idea of replaying a game (or a portion of a game) due to a bad call is not unprecedented. In some cases, the idea of a replay due to an official’s error makes its way to the courthouse. The Oklahoma high school football playoffs were recently engaged in a clock-suspending standstill while a state court determined whether it had the ability to intervene in the aftermath of a grievous referee error. Frederick A. Douglass High School sought the replay of either the final sixty-four seconds or its entire quarterfinal game against Locust Grove High School after the referees incorrectly negated a touchdown with a five-yard penalty that should have been assessed on the ensuing kickoff.
Despite an apology and public admonishment of the mistake from the Oklahoma Secondary School Activities Association (OSSAA), many were left unsatisfied when the OSSAA concluded that a replay would not occur. The OSSAA cited its concern for setting a precedent that allowed every on-field decision to be subjected to protest, appeal, and replay.
The Oklahoma City School District, on behalf of Douglass High, filed a lawsuit requesting a replay on the grounds that it was unreasonable for the OSSAA to not intervene after the referees admitted to not knowing the relevant penalty assessment. As outrage mounted, District Judge Bernard M. Jones II issued a temporary restraining order, which postponed the impending semifinal playoff game involving Locust Grove. Judge Jones noted, however, that the District faced a heavy burden to prove that greater injunctive relief should be granted.
Unfortunately for Douglass High and its supporters, precedent involving judicial intervention of high school athletics is not favorable. Whereas NCAA rules permit replays in the face of serious referee error, there is no analogous high school provision. Interestingly enough, the 2013 Oklahoma high school baseball playoffs were suspended for a month while a participating school tried to use state courts to challenge an ineligibility ruling made by the OSSAA.
Ultimately, Judge Jones eliminated the possibility of a court-sanctioned replay after he found that the OSSAA had not violated or disregarded its policies in a manner that warranted injunctive relief. In his order dismissing the claim, the judge emphasized that “it borders on the unreasonable” to believe that a court is “more equipped or better qualified than [the OSSAA] to decide the outcome of any portion of a high school football game.” Moreover, Judge Jones reasoned:
"This slippery slope of solving athletic contests in court instead of on campus will inevitably usher in a new era of robed referees and meritless litigation due to disagreement with or disdain for decisions of gaming officials — an unintended consequence which hurts both the court system and the citizens it is designed to protect."
The entire order can be read here.
Maybe as a sign of karmic intervention, Locust Grove was ousted from the playoffs after losing to Heritage Hall High School when the semifinal game was finally played.
I can see why a judge would be reluctant to simply reverse a win or a loss for a game that has already been played, but if there is an admission of a bad call by officials, and that bad call substantially altered the outcome of a game, why put an absolute bar on replaying the game if the teams are able to accommodate? Unfortunately, I have personally heard language like this from judges on more than one occasion when trying to get injunctive relief for student-athletes and schools. “Counsel, it is not my job to make line-ups,” or “I am a judge, and not a ‘super referee.’” I well recognize that participation in extracurricular sports is a privilege, and not a right, and therefore not accorded the same levels of constitutional protection; however, with an ever increasing amount of money coming into sports, and the benefits and value of athletic scholarships continuing to increase, the judiciary needs to revisit the idea that athletic participation may warrant intervention prior to the professional levels.
Hat tip to law clerk, Ben Barnett, for his assistance on this.