RACINE — The Wisconsin Interscholastic Athletic Association and National Association of Sports Officials share a fear that any or all of their referees decisions may end up being legally challenged in court, reversing what had been an unchanging precedent of leaving calls and penalties on the field.
This fear was incited last Friday, when a Racine County Circuit Court judge issued a restraining order, temporarily blocking an athlete’s suspension after a wrestler’s father hired an attorney to challenge two unsportsmanlike conduct calls.
The wrestler, Waterford High School sophomore Hayden Halter, was suspended after winning the Southern Lakes Conference championship on Feb. 2. After Friday’s last-minute court hearing, Judge Michael J. Piontek found that Halter’s actions during the match were not worthy of suspension after reviewing video of the match and WIAA rules.
The WIAA’s attorneys unsuccessfully argued that a deluge of complaints and legal challenges could be on the horizon if Piontek ruled against them on Friday, which he ended up doing anyway.
An appeal of the restraining order issued by Piontek may still be filed.
Thanks to the restraining order, Halter — who won state last year as a freshman with Burlington High School — was allowed to wrestle (and win) Saturday at a regional tournament in Pewaukee. Next Saturday, Halter is scheduled to compete at the Division 1 sectional meet at Horlick High School, one step away from the state tournament.
Attorney Brent Jacobson, representing the WIAA, said in a pair of emails Monday: “At this point in time, all we can say is that our client (the WIAA) is weighing its alternative courses of action … an appeal is one option. If that option were pursued, given the stage of the proceeding at this time, I cannot say when that would occur.”
The ref’s call
Barry Mano, the president of the National Association of Sports Officials, wrote a commentary titled “Calling a foul on the bench”.
“Judge Piontek played armchair referee and the consequences, if left unchecked and unchallenged, will bring uncertainty and loss of belief in the outcomes of high school contests,” Mano argued.
This was a concern Piontek addressed in his decision on Friday. He told the WIAA’s attorneys and leaders that the possibility of litigation may just have to be something that the nonprofit is going to have to contend with going forward, if parents, fans or schools are willing to go through the legal process to plead their case.
Piontek added that he felt he had to reverse the referee’s decision in Halter’s case, in spite of the WIAA’s precedent, because what he saw on the recording and learned through testimony proved to him that Halter didn’t deserve to be suspended.
The implications of this decision could be damaging to Wisconsin high school athletics, according to Mano.
“Imagine how many aggrieved parents/fans will now consider using the court system to challenge a referee’s judgment call,” he wrote. “What will be coming our way will be this: often quite ordinary and mundane calls by sports officials will be subject to litigation brought by upset fans/parents.”
The WIAA doesn’t allow its referees to use video reviews in any sport in any situation, citing rules from the National Federation of State High School Associations.
Few Wisconsin high school competitions are reliably filmed. The video that was entered as evidence in Halter’s case was shot from the bleachers by Halter’s mother, Brynn.
“In effect,” Mano wrote, “Judge Piontek became the replay official, where replay is not permitted, and chose to override the decision of the official on the mat.”
Mano added that this kind of criticism will make it even tougher to recruit new referees — and they’re often understaffed as is.
On Jan. 10, the WIAA issued a letter stating that parents who engage in “verbally criticizing game officials or coaches … (are) the primary reason Wisconsin has an alarming shortage of high school officials.”
The letter stated that 80 percent of officials quit after two years, much shorter than what had been the norm.