Ham: Fenwick, Justice, Logic All Lose

By Eldon Ham–

(CBS) A court-aided injustice has caused the Fenwick High School football team to lose twice in five days, the first time to a cabal of bungling referees, the second time in a court of equity. Neither decision was correct.

Yes, it’s bad precedent for courts to get involved in high school football games. But at any cost, especially if the remedy is easy, fair and just? In general, courts are loathe to re-litigate bad referee calls. But it’s also really bad precedent for a court of equity to allow an injustice based on form over substance, particularly if the wrong outcome is easy to fix without upending the IHSA rules or setting bad precedent.

The winner of the Fenwick-Plainfield North playoff semifinal game last Saturday was slated to go to the Illinois State Class 7A championship. Fenwick was winning by three points with four seconds to go in the contest. It was fourth down, and Fenwick had the ball with its back to its own goal line. Fenwick opted to take the snap, kill a couple seconds and then throw a pass downfield far enough for the clock to run out and end the game. That’s what happened.

But the officials called intentional grounding on the throw, awarded the ball to Plainfield and gave it one untimed play that Plainfield used to kick a field goal to tie. In overtime, Plainfield prevailed. Whether the intentional grounding was the right call is irrelevant. No one disputes that the IHSA football rules state that under these circumstances, the other team doesn’t get a free play and the game ends if the clock had run out.

The case largely turned on IHSA bylaw 6.033, which says, “The decisions of game officials are final.” However, that rule is broad and a bit vague. What if they had decided to award points to one team or declare that all hot dogs were free of charge? What they did do was no less absurd. On their own, they opted to keep on playing a game that by rule had already ended.

They don’t have the authority to make up new rules, extend games, play new ones or ignore the one that just ended. In such cases, the courts apply reason under the circumstances so long as such flexibility doesn’t create an injustice greater than the one it solves.

In ruling on emergency relief, courts will examine the law, the facts, the rules and a balancing of harms depending on differing outcomes. Second-guessing subjective opinions isn’t encouraged; thus, the intentional grounding call isn’t reviewable by the courts. But opting to continue a game that ended by the actual rules is improper and arbitrary.

In this case, the court didn’t have to overrule the officials. It just had to say that the game ended when Fenwick threw the ball downfield and the clock ran out, such that the right team won at the end of regulation play. No rewriting a single IHSA rule, no second-guessing any subjective referee decisions during the game and no setting of bad precedent.

Various famous cases come to mind, but the Fenwick decision is the easiest of all. For example, in 1983, the commissioner of Major League Baseball overruled a Kansas City Royals game against the New York Yankees because the umpire had improperly negated a George Brett ninth-inning home run due to excessive pine tar on his bat. The game was played over from that point. But in the Fenwick case, the court didn’t have to replay anything or reverse any referee calls at all. It only needed to agree that under the IHSA rules, the game had ended without overtime and Fenwick was at that point the winner, regardless of whatever unwritten frolic the refs unreasonably conjured up thereafter.

By ruling against Fenwick, the court actually perpetuated an injustice and awarded a championship game to the wrong team, sending an erroneous message that courts are powerless to overrule arbitrary unfairness, even when it costs nothing to do so. Had the court ruled for Fenwick, the actual winner of the actual game, it would have achieved a just result without overruling a single IHSA rule.

Yes, the referee decisions are final under the rules, but there’s always an implied requirement of reasonableness. Extending a game that had already ended under the rules is unreasonable and improper for a state tournament, even under rule 6.033. Can refs continue to make rulings after the game is over? If they do and those are uncalled for, then it’s easy for a court of equity to fix by just nullifying all that happens after the game ended.

Judge Kennedy likely used her best skills and judgment, but she may also have been unduly influenced by the strong stance of the IHSA in championing its rule about referee decisions being final. But no unreasonable decisions should be final if there’s virtually no downside to remedying the problem — especially if those rulings come after the game ends.

Fenwick should have won the game and the court decision. Instead, we have a clear mandate for tails wagging the dog.

Eldon Ham is the WSCR sports legal analyst, a professor of Sports, Law & Society at IIT/Chicago-Kent College of Law and the author of numerous sports books, including All the Babe’s Men, the 2014 bronze medal winner in the national IPPY book awards for sports. Click here to read his previous work for 670thescore.com.

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