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School Legal Challenges to State Association Rulings

By Lee Green, J.D. on February 10, 2015 hst Print

The Issue

In recent years, an increasing number of legal challenges have been filed in courts by schools and athletics programs disputing the decision of a state athletics association with regard to the outcome of an athletic contest. In some cases, the origin of the dispute is an erroneous call by game officials that allegedly cost a team a game and the resulting lawsuit seeks to have the contest replayed in whole or in part. In other cases, the dispute arises out of a state association ruling that a game must be forfeited because of the use of an ineligible player by the winning team and the lawsuit seeks to have the forfeiture overturned.

Both scenarios typically involve schools challenging governing body rules agreed to in advance by the institutions based on their voluntary membership in the state association and concern regulations being disputed only because their application in the case-in-question resulted in a negative outcome for the plaintiff-school with regard to qualifying for or advancing farther in state playoffs. Such lawsuits involve issues broader than the application of the specific rule in question and deal in particular with the question as to the role of the judicial system in resolving disputes involving school athletics contests and whether athletic competitions should ultimately be decided not on the field, but in a courtroom.

Douglass ISD v. Oklahoma Secondary School Activities Association

On Friday, November 28, with 1 minute, 4 seconds remaining in an Oklahoma Class 3A quarterfinal football playoff game, Douglass High School of Oklahoma City scored on a 58-yard pass play to take a 25-20 lead over Locust Grove High School, located in the town of the same name in northeastern Oklahoma. As the Douglass wide receiver was running to the end zone, a Douglass coach running excitedly down the sideline parallel to the receiver unintentionally impeded one of the game officials, resulting in a flag being thrown on the play. High school football rules call for a 5-yard penalty to be assessed on either the extra point or the ensuing kickoff; instead the referees incorrectly annulled the touchdown. Locust Grove won the game 20-19, thereby advancing to the state semifinals.

The Oklahoma Secondary School Activities Association (OSSAA) admitted the penalty had been erroneously administered, but concluded that under state and national bylaws it did not have the power to change the outcome of a game based on a mistaken ruling by game officials. Therefore, the Oklahoma Public Schools filed a lawsuit seeking an injunction ordering a replay of the last 1:04 of the game or, in the alternative, a replay of the game in its entirety.

On Thursday, December 4, one day before Locust Grove was scheduled to play Heritage Hall High School in the state semifinals, a state trial court judge issued a Temporary Restraining Order putting the Class 3A playoffs on hold pending a resolution of the case. The following Monday, in oral arguments before the court, the attorney for the Oklahoma City Public Schools argued that the OSSAA’s denial of Douglass High School’s appeal was arbitrary and capricious and that no rational basis existed for refusing to overturn the result of an athletic contest when a bad call by an official costs a team a game.

On Thursday, December 11, the district court issued a ruling in favor of the OSSAA, denying the plaintiff’s request for an injunction ordering a replay of part or all of the disputed game. The court found that the state association rules – regulations enacted by the member schools and to which Douglass High School had always previously acquiesced based on its voluntary membership in the OSSAA – were not arbitrary and capricious. In its written opinion, although acknowledging the unfairness of a bad call potentially impacting the outcome of an athletic contest, the court stated, “More tragic, however, would be for this Court to assert itself in this matter. While mindful of the frustrations of the young athletes who feel deprived by the inaction of the [OSSAA], it borders on the unreasonable and extends far beyond the purview of the judiciary to think this Court more equipped or better qualified to decide the outcome or any portion of a high school football game. Courts ought not meddle in these activities or others, especially when [the Oklahoma City Public Schools and Douglass] have agreed to be bound by and have availed themselves to the governance of the [OSSAA].”

The court continued, “There is neither statute nor case law allowing this Court discretion to order the replaying of a high school football game ... [t]he pursuit of further judicial action would result in the frustration of the world of athletics as we know it. This slippery slope of resolving athletic contests in court would inevitably usher in a new era of robed referees and meritless litigation due to disagreement with or disdain for decisions of game officials.”

As have many courts in similar cases over the years, the Douglass v. OSSAA decision reinforces the standard that bad calls by officials are a part of sports and that, despite the unfairness of losing an athletic contest because of an erroneous on-field or on-court ruling, such incidents are an inherent part of athletic events and providing judicial review for every bad call would result in a flood of litigation across the country that would substantially interfere with the far more serious legal issues which already-backlogged and resource-deprived court systems are struggling to resolve.

Aquinas High School v. New York State Public High School Athletic Association

In a similar case involving a slightly different factual scenario, Aquinas High School (Rochester, New York) sued the NYSPHSAA for upholding the forfeiture of the school’s October 25, 37-20, Section V Class AA quarterfinal playoff win over Pittsford because Aquinas used an ineligible player, its star quarterback, in the game. The forfeit was announced October 28 after reports to the state association that the quarterback, who because of injuries had played in only two games prior to the Pittsford game, had violated the state association’s rule mandating that a football player must play in at least three regular-season games to be eligible for the postseason.

At a hearing before a state trial court judge on the morning of October 31, the attorney for Aquinas argued that the player had been medically cleared to play in the team’s October 18 regular-season finale, which would have been his third of the regular season, and was held out of that game only to provide more recovery time in advance of the sectional playoffs. The attorney also asserted that the player’s participation in the October 18 pre-game coin toss, although he was not in uniform, pads and helmet and could not have entered the game itself, satisfied the requirement of playing in the game. Finally, arguments were made that the NYSPHSAA’s forfeiture decision was made in violation of the lawful power of the association, that the forfeiture was arbitrary and capricious, and that the association had abused its discretion by making a decision that lacked a rational basis.

In a 12-page written opinion issued late in the afternoon of October 31, the court rejected all of the arguments proffered by Aquinas, concluding that the player had clearly failed to satisfy the three-game requirement and that Aquinas had failed to request a medical waiver to the rule as was its right under state association bylaws and as schools commonly do throughout the state for players who are in danger of not meeting the three-game rule because of injuries. The court also ruled that the forfeiture decision was within the lawful power of the NYSPHSAA because Aquinas was a voluntary member of the association and, as such, had agreed to abide by its bylaws. The court also held that the forfeiture was not arbitrary and capricious, nor was it an abuse of the NYSPHSAA’s discretion, stating, “[a] court may not substitute its judgment for that of the board or body it reviews” and that “in regard to school athletics, [case precedents] have repeatedly indicated that courts should not interfere with the internal affairs, proceedings, rules, and orders of a high school athletic association.”

In essence the court ruled in the same way that the vast majority of courts around the country have ruled in such cases over the years – a school is obligated to follow the rules and procedures set forth by the state association of which it is a member and it is not the proper role of courts to second-guess the decision of an athletics governing body regarding the implementation of regulations that a school has agreed, in advance, to adhere to as a condition of its membership in the association.