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News Update

Why Courts Should Not Overturn a Referee's Call

©Alan Goldberger 2014 All Legal Rights Reserved

A recent lawsuit arising out of a high school football game in Oklahoma seeks court intervention to reverse an official's call which incorrectly applied a playing rule. The school involved has asked a judge to order the game, or a portion of the game replayed.


On November 28, Frederick A. Douglass Mid-High School and Locust Grove High School competed in an Oklahoma Secondary School Activities Association quarterfinal football playoff game in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma. With just over one minute remaining in the game a touchdown scored by Douglass was called back as a result of a penalty for a sideline foul. The officials enforced the penalty but incorrectly replayed the down in which the touchdown was scored. The correct procedure would have been to count the touchdown and then enforce the penalty. Douglass lost the game by a score of 20-19.

Locust Grove advanced to the next round of the playoffs. Douglass was eliminated by the loss.

Although the OSSAA advised the school that its policy does not permit protests of an official's error, Douglass appealed to the OSSAA and an appeal hearing was held before the Association's Board of Directors. When the appeal was denied, Douglass filed a legal action and obtained a temporary restraining order barring the OSSAA from conducting any further football playoff games until a decision by the court. The Judge was also asked to order that the final one minute and four seconds of the Douglass-Locust Grove game be replayed; or that the entire game be replayed due to the officials' error.

On December 10, 2014 Oklahoma District Judge Bernard M. Jones held a hearing on the case. The following day, Judge Jones issued a decision denying Douglass's request to replay the game, dissolving the Temporary Restraining Order entered last week.

Concluding that "…the evidence does not support Plaintiff's likelihood of success on the merits of the case," Judge Jones ruled that

"…it borders on the unreasonable … to think this Court more equipped or better qualified than Defendant to decide the outcome or any portion of a high school football game."

In a four-page written opinion, the Court affirmed the well-established legal principal we cited last night:

"Courts ought not meddle in these activities or others… especially when the parties have agreed to be bound by and have availed themselves to the governance of these activities associations."

In his concluding remarks Judge Jones eloquently framed the issue and the resolution:

Undoubtedly, the pursuit of further judicial action would result in the frustration of the world of athletics as we know it. 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 … [game] officials -- an unintended consequence which hurts both the court system and the citizens it is designed to protect.

The Take-Aways: Legal Points to Remember

· American courts usually deny relief to litigants who sue to overturn a referee's call in a game. And they should. Courts do not favor interfering in the affairs of sports governing bodies.

· Sports are meant to be played and decided on the field -- for a number of very good reasons. If judges replaced the game officials' judgment with their own judgment for one call in one game, they could be called upon to consider doing the same for any call in any game.

· If the rules of a game are open to interpretation by judges and altering of calls made during a game, how would judges decide such cases? Would experts in the rules of a sport need to be hired and prepare reports for judges to consider?

· Would the game be replayed? Where, and when? Which records would "count" and which would be discarded?

· Then, when judges act, their decisions may in turn be appealed to yet another court.

· In high school football, there are "rules about rules." If a coach feels a rule may have been misapplied by an official, he or she can initiate a time out and request a review by the officials which may result in corrective action. Alan Goldberger on CBS News

Read ALAN GOLDBERGER’s legal commentary on this case and related issues:

      The New York Times

      CBS This Morning

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