Court Challenge to Illinois HS Officials' Error Sparks Debate

November 26, 2016

As reported by the New York State Sportswriters Association, an Illinois high school football team went to court earlier this week seeking to remedy a botched officials' call that cost them a berth into the state semi-final. The error was almost identical to the one made in Central Michigan's controversial win over Oklahoma State in September. In both cases, the officials awarded the winning team an extra play after time had expired, ultimately changing the outcome of the game. In both cases, a correct application of the rules would have resulted in the game ending when time expired. In both cases, the applicable association bylaws prohibited a subsequent challenge to the error made by the game officials.

Although there was no official action taken by Oklahoma State to overturn the game result, the controversy is still swirling, primarily because of the potential College Football Playoff implications. In the case of Fenwick, the Illinois football team wronged by the officials' error, it first appealed to the Illinois High School Association (IHSA). The IHSA refused to hear the appeal because its bylaws provided that determinations made by the game officials (right or wrong) were final. Fenwick then took the case to court, but the judge refused to overturn the game result, citing the same IHSA bylaw.

Aside from an eerie similarity involving an obscure football rule, both situations have sparked criticism of regulations that bar challenges to determinations made by game officials. Proponents of these rules argue that allowing such challenges would open the floodgates to countless objections. After all, hardly a game goes by where a referee's call is not heavily criticized by coaches, spectators and the media. Another argument in support of these rules is that mistakes by the officials are simply a part of the game. Particularly with high school athletes, this a valuable lesson to learn. On the other hand, we now live a world where instant replay review has become a common aspect of college and professional sports. This trend anticipates mistakes as human nature, but places an emphasis on the officials "getting it right." Put another way, if there is clear and convincing evidence that a mistake was made, why not correct it? Video replay review has its own critics and is a separate debate in and of itself. We are not suggesting that it has a place in high school athletics, but we mention it here to illustrate the premium placed on identifying and correcting officials' errors in the world of sport. A rule that prohibits correction of an obvious error made by officials, especially one at the end of a game that decides the outcome, is a significant step in the other direction. As columnist David Moulton recently asked in connection with the Central Michigan-Oklahoma State controversy, "what's the sense of having a rule book if you are going to ignore it on the final play of the game?"

The Fenwick situation was newsworthy because of the unusual spectacle of a judge being asked to decide the outcome of a game. However, the difficult issues described above exist whether the controversy is considered by a judge, a high school athletic association board or the court of public opinion.

The approach by the PSAL on these issues strikes a middle ground. Section 18.1 of the PSAL Rules and Regulations (governing both football and basketball) provides that protests may only be made "if a rule is alleged to have been applied incorrectly, or not applied." Section 18.2 provides that "[n]o protest of judgment calls may be entered." Section 18.11 indicates that "the decision of the PSAL is final." This is a middle ground because it addresses the concerns on both sides of these thorny issues. It authorizes the PSAL to overturn an obvious rule-based error by a game official, but it precludes petty challenges to judgment calls. 

Regardless of protest procedures, coaches and players who arm themselves with a solid understanding of the rules of the game can avoid a nightmare scenario in the first place. While referees are understandably expected to fully understand the rules in-and-out, coaches and players who do so will put themselves in a position to successfully challenge a mistake during the game. As the expression goes, an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure. A coach or player who can cite the correct rule during a game may not only save their team from an unjust result, but also prevent an official's mistake from escalating into an irreversible error. Knowledge is power.





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