A lawsuit waiting to happen?

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.


Filed under See You In Court

11 responses to “A lawsuit waiting to happen?

  1. Hogbody Spradlin

    For now though, I’m reassured that a game is still just a game.


  2. GaskillDawg

    This happened in Georgia in 1981 arising from a game between R. L. Osborne and Lithia Springs High Schools. One team faced 4th and 21 and punted. The other team roughed the punter. The referee called a roughing the punter penalty, marched off the 15 years but failed to award a first down. The punting team punted again and did not receive the benefit of the automatic first down, and eventually lost. Those litigious Cobb County parents sued, asking the trial court to order that the game be resumed from the point of the line of scrimmage but with the team having a first down rather than a fourth down. The Supreme Court of Georgia held that players and their parents have no property interest in a football game to protect.

    So, Georgia went through this 34 years ago.


    • reipar

      Actually the case you cite is the kind of Judge the Plaintiffs are looking for. The lower court Judge ruled that the playoff game for that night was cancelled and that Lithia and R.L. would start their game from the point of the mistake the next day. The winner then advancing to play in the cancelled playoff game.

      I bet this may be the only Georgia case to be ruled on by the lower court and the Supreme Court in the same day.


  3. Huntindawg

    No doubt about the forum shopping aspect – the law is only what your judge wants it to be on the day you are in front of him or her.


  4. Irishdawg

    Can we still sue over last years Vandy game?


  5. 69Dawg

    not to highjack the thread but I would think the outcome of games will be the least of the problems of the courts if the concussion cases get going. Think of all the kids that play HS FB and never go further. There are a lot of old men walking around with bad knees, hips and ankles from high school injuries. Most of them are too proud of it to sue but the newer generation won’t be. The first early onset dementia patient that can prove he had a concussion while playing in HS will be able to find a lawyer to take it. The nation’s school boards are made up of some of the most frighten people on the planet. The zero tolerance policies are designed by idiots to be idiot proof. The fastest way to protect the school district will be to stop HS football. Many experts are predicting it will happen within 20 years.


    • Cojones

      Remember the def of “expert”: “X” is an unknown quantity in mathematics and “spurt” is a drip under pressure. Fits right in with your school boards.


  6. Mayor

    Was Penn Wagers the ref who blew the call?


  7. Uglydawg

    The only reason for the huge uproar in instances like these, is the officiating errors occured at such a prominent time of the game. The errors may have had the same or even less outcome on the game that an error called (or not called) on the opening kickoff .. So if the last and most obvious error has merit in a suit, so should every single error. Who can say what would happen if holding were ignored, or offsides on a kickoff incorrectly called. It’s “The Road Not Taken”….There are errors in every game…but as a wise old sage once told me, “It’s not the penaltys that they call that bother me as much as the ones they don’t call”. All a ref has to say is…”I didn’t see it”.(As far as AJ’s celebration penalty…I didn’t see IT.)
    It only takes one sneaky or even honest mistake to change the outcome of an offensive series…thus the game…and possibly the season and even recruiting and seasons to come…or even a coach’s job!
    THIS is why officials should be held to a very tight and high standard…not by the courts, but by the associations. And there needs to be accountability and punishment that will work.