So this happened.
The Oklahoma controversy began on Nov. 28 during a quarterfinal battle between Frederick A. Douglass High School and Locust Grove High School. Douglass scored an apparent touchdown on a 58-yard pass to take a lead over favored Locust Grove with just over a minute left in the game. However, a referee penalized Douglass, saying that one of the team’s coaches had impeded a referee on the sideline. The officials negated the touch-down rather than impose the correct penalty, either a 5-yard loss on the ensuing extra-point attempt or on the kickoff. The referee’s blunder cost Douglass the game.
The state high school athletic association ruled the game complete and upheld the high school team’s loss.
So this happened.
The Oklahoma City Public Schools District, within which Douglass is located, sued the Oklahoma Secondary School Activities Association in Oklahoma County District Court. The school district contended that the official’s interpretation of the association’s rules was unreasonable and arbitrary, and it sought the remedy of replaying either the game’s last few minutes or the entire game.
The court denied the relief, reasoning as follows:
“There is neither statute nor case law allowing this court discretion to order the replaying of a high school football game,” Jones concluded, adding: “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.”
That’s nothing new, as one sports law expert explains.
Experts support Jones’ reasoning. “The decision in the Oklahoma case was absolutely the correct decision,” says sports business scholar Marc Edelman, who teaches at the Zicklin School of Business at Baruch College, part of the City University of New York. “These types of cases happen from time to time, but usually these cases don’t get very far. Courts take the general view that they should not interfere with decisions of private associations.”
“As a general rule, the hands-off policy is excellent because courts would become burdened and the dockets would be clogged,” Edelman says. “Courts also lack the experience to evaluate the minutiae of associations’ internal rules unless there are allegations of bad faith or clear violations of federal or state law.”
Yet, says Tim Davis, a law professor at Wake Forest University who teaches sports law, “because of the increase in the recording of athletic events—but under circumstances where referees do not have access to video review—we may see a few more lawsuits of this nature. I doubt, however, that we’ll see many.”
However, Davis says, many of these lawsuits arise not only because of the litigious nature of society “but perhaps more importantly because of the interests at stake. For example, a loss of athletic eligibility may compromise an athlete’s opportunity to receive a college athletic scholarship.” He says there are “a substantial number of lawsuits that challenge high school associations’ decisions involving other matters such as student-athlete eligibility.”
Hoo, boy. It’s not as if either of those conditions doesn’t exist in college football these days. One of these days, a bad call will cost a school a shot at the CFP and somebody’s going to be angry enough about it to go to court. And with forum shopping being what it is these days, there’s bound to be a judge out there who’s sympathetic enough to throw a monkey wrench into the works, at least for the short-term. That’ll be fun to watch.