A Bad Football Call Leads to Litigation

Screen Shot 2015-01-09 at 11.21.37 AMBy Stephen Anson

Oklahoma City Public School District sought relief in state court after Frederick A. Douglass High School lost an Oklahoma Class 3A football quarterfinal game due to a botched call by a referee. The trial court judge indicated that he was “skeptical” of the claim, but nonetheless enjoined the winning team from proceeding with its playoff game. All of this begs the question, are high school referee decisions even correctable in court?

On November 28, 2014, with approximately 1 minute remaining in the game, Douglass High School, of the Oklahoma City School District, scored on a long touchdown pass and appeared to take a 25-20 lead over undefeated Locust Grove High School. However, during the excitement of the touchdown, one of the Douglass coaches accidently bumped into a referee who threw a flag for a five-yard penalty. Although the rules required the penalty be assessed on the ensuing kickoff, the referees wrongly negated the touchdown. Locust Grove hung on to their 20-19 lead and was declared the winner.

Douglass appealed to the Oklahoma Secondary School Activities Association (OSSAA), asking to replay the final minute of the game. While the Association apologized for the mistake, it declined to intervene because the OSSAA Board Policy and the National Federation of State High School Association (NFHS) football rules did not permit protesting an official’s errors to the Board.

Then, the Oklahoma City School District filed a lawsuit, asking for a temporary restraining order to prevent Locust Grove from advancing and playing its scheduled semi-final game. The District also requested that the court order the final minute of the game be replayed with the score reset to 25-20.

The District argued that decisions of the OSSAA are reviewable under the Oklahoma Administrative Procedures Act (APA), and that substantial evidence must support an OSSAA decision under the APA. The District claimed that the OSSAA should have intervened and ordered that the game be replayed with Douglass ahead due to the referee’s mistake. To support its argument, the District relied on the NFHS rules, which state that “State Associations may intercede in the event of unusual incidents that occur before, during or after the game officials’ jurisdiction has ended.”  NFHS Football Rules Book, Section 1, Article 8.

On December 4, 2014, the trial court judge issued a temporary restraining order postponing the Locust Grove-Heritage Hall 3A semifinal. The trial court eventually ruled against the District on December 11, 2014, stating that “the referees’ error could be considered by many as a tragedy,” but the courts should not intervene because both teams agreed to be bound by the rules of the state high school activities association.

The court determined that there was no precedent allowing a court to order the teams to replay the last minute of the game, and no way to ensure it would be fair to both teams, because the conditions of the game could not be replicated. The court was additionally concerned that a “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.”

The District said that it would not appeal the trial court’s ruling, and there are no other similar lawsuits identified at the time of this posting. While this might signal the last time someone attempts to use the courts to overturn a bad referee call, it may inspire others to appeal similar bad calls in different jurisdictions with slightly different high school football rules and athletic/activity boards. We’ll just have to wait and see.

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