RACINE — Against the wishes of the Wisconsin Interscholastic Athletic Association, Waterford High School sophomore Hayden Halter will get a chance to defend his state wrestling championship.
After a 2½-hour hearing Friday afternoon, Racine County Circuit Court Judge Michael J. Piontek issued an injunction to block a controversial suspension the WIAA gave Halter last week at the Southern Lakes Conference meet.
Halter is now cleared to wrestle at Saturday’s Division 1 regional meet in Pewaukee, the first step to getting back to the state individual tournament. Last season, Halter won the 106-pound championship while wrestling for Burlington High School.
“I’m ready,” Halter said after Friday’s hearing. “Every year I expect to win state.”
The WIAA can appeal the ruling, although a trial likely wouldn’t be held for months. If it succeeds in that appeal, then any victories Halter is awarded during that time can be revoked. But, until a trial can take place, Piontek’s restraining order will stand, and Halter will still have his shot at back-to-back championships.
On Feb. 2, Halter defeated a Union Grove High School wrestler to win the 120-pound championship at the SLC meet at Elkhorn, his first-ever conference championship.
In the closing seconds of the match, the referee — Michael Arendt, a former Union Grove coach who is now the athletic director at St. Catherine’s High School who said he has officiated at the Southern Lakes Conference tournament for eight straight years — gave one point to Halter’s opponent for an escape. Halter, along with his father Shawn and coach Tom Fitzpatrick, questioned the call.
Halter stood up and said something to Arendt, video of the match shows. Halter, along with his father and coach, said that the 15-year-old said “What was that?” in reference to the escape call, since it appeared Halter still had his arms wrapped around his opponent. Arendt claimed that Halter cursed at him and issued an unsportsmanlike conduct penalty. Halter, his father and Fitzgerald all claimed that Halter did not swear.
Moments later, after Halter and his opponent shook hands, Halter was called the victor. He briefly flexed his muscles and yelled “yes!” in celebration.
Arendt claimed that Halter’s flex was a taunt, directed at fans in the stands from Burlington High, his former school. Halter and his father said that the celebration was directed at the father, although Halter’s father is not visible in video of the match.
During Friday’s hearing, Halter said he didn’t even know where Burlington’s fans were grouped.
Arendt issued a second unsportsmanlike conduct call, which resulted in a one-match suspension.
Fitzpatrick appealed the decision at the meet, but Arendt said it was upheld after he conferred with other referees on scene.
Under WIAA rules, an unsportsmanlike conduct penalty is a judgment call by the referee. Judgment calls cannot be appealed for an official review after the event is concluded.
“What happens on the mat needs to stay on the mat,” said Brent Jacobson, an attorney for the WIAA, at the hearing.
Halter left the meet “extremely disappointed” after finding out about his suspension, Fitzpatrick said, thinking his dreams of winning four state championships were over.
But Fitzpatrick found a way to get his star wrestler back into contention. Under WIAA rules, it doesn’t matter if a suspension is served in a varsity or junior varsity meet, according to arguments made by Halter’s attorney, Jeremy P. Levinson. So, rather than continue fighting the suspension, Fitzpatrick entered Halter in a JV meet on Tuesday in Lake Geneva.
Halter arrived at the meet, but did not wrestle, which Levinson said should have fulfilled the suspension.
The WIAA didn’t agree. It maintained that the suspension was still in effect, since Halter is a varsity wrestler and thus his suspension should be served at a varsity meet.
“What we were told (by the WIAA) was that, since it wasn’t a varsity match, it wasn’t good enough,” Levinson said.
Dr. Wade Labecki, the WIAA’s deputy director, said that this interpretation of the rule — that a varsity suspension must be served in a varsity match — has been consistent for at least a decade. Piontek responded: “So why isn’t it in the rules?”
A post on WIAA’s website, which Levinson cited at the hearing, says that a suspension issued in a JV match can be fulfilled in a varsity match. No explicit guidance is given regarding the reverse.
“This matter got unduly complicated when the WIAA deviated from its own rules,” Levinson said. “If it ain’t in the rules, it’s just someone making it up.”
Levinson also argued that by not allowing Halter to wrestle, the WIAA would be causing “irreparable harm” to the young man’s career.
College scouts are already looking at Halter, Fitzpatrick said, and the blemish of not even competing in the state championship as a sophomore could cost Halter thousands of dollars in potential scholarships.
Piontek said that if the WIAA upheld Arendt’s call that Halter’s flexing was unsportsmanlike, then it would be “taking away someone’s right for celebration.”
“It looks like he was looking at his dad to me,” Piontek said upon reviewing video of the match and questioning Arendt. “I heard no profanity and I saw no taunting.”
Piontek also took issue with the policy that the WIAA won’t review referees’ calls after the fact, especially when the consequences could be as great as those faced by Halter.
“What’s most distressing to me is the WIAA won’t even look at it … even when there’s evidence in front of them,” he said.
Jacobsen argued that the courts “should not interfere in the internal affairs of a voluntary organization” like the WIAA, which is a nonprofit. But Piontek disagreed, especially since he said that WIAA functions “like a governmental agency.”
Piontek also said that there is a chance other student-athletes have found themselves in the same situation as Halter, where they may have been unfairly affected by a referee’s supposedly incorrect decision, but weren’t as fortunate as Halter in being able to afford a lawyer “to fight for them.”
The WIAA’s attorneys argued overruling the referee’s decision to suspend Halter would open up the courts to field countless cases from fans, parents and athletes who wish to challenge bad calls.
Piontek acknowledged that his decision could “open the floodgates” for those looking to appeal WIAA referees’ decisions. However, since the judge found that the suspension leveled against Halter wasn’t justified, he felt “it would be wrong” not to “grant justice” to the wrestler.
The judge described the WIAA’s position like this: “I don’t see anything Halter did wrong, but since we don’t want Monday morning quarterbacks, you’re just going to get screwed.”
“What the rules say is that this young man gets to wrestle,” Piontek said.