Photo Credit: Dale Garvey

All state high school athletic associations impose postgame disciplinary actions on student-athletes and coaches who are ejected from a contest by reason of unsporting conduct in one form or another, but can player ejections be overturned by a court?

Almost all state associations impose a brief postgame suspension following the ejection of a player or coach. The penalties range from (rarely) simply requiring the offender to complete an online or video sportsmanship course to a suspension from the next two (or more) games.  More often than not, the default is the suspension of the offender for the next one or two games. And, in most states, there is no postgame appeal permitted (see sidebar).

The scenario is familiar to all state association staff: An “aggrieved” student-athlete, his parents, her school, or both, in tow, files a lawsuit asking a judge to issue a court order allowing the student-athlete to play
an all-important next game.

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If the judge agrees, the ensuing court order can negate the suspension penalty altogether; and sometimes places the suspension on hold until the court can hear all the evidence and make a decision. Either way, damage is done. The rules flouted.

Recently, a local judge reacted to a such a lawsuit by looking at a video, drawing his own conclusions and “saving the day” by undermining the official’s call, overruling an ejection and returning the athlete to the next game — at the same teaching an invaluable lesson in sportsmanship.  Poor sportsmanship, that is.

Courts overwhelmingly reject challenges to officials’ decisions

Courts overwhelmingly reject challenges to an official’s ejection of a player from a game or match.  Even when a local judge deems it appropriate to overturn playing rules and governing body regulations to which all member schools and athletes have contractually agreed, the appellate court generally reverses the local judge’s decision. Courts are generally reluctant to interfere in a private association’s business.

How come? The answer lies in the tension between the constitutional guarantee of “due process clause” rights versus the constitutional guarantee of freedom of association (as in “freedom to contract”). In this context, the contract is the state association’s rules and regulations, including playing rules and eligibility rules. In short, when a school chooses to affiliate with an association, it agrees to comply with its rules and regulations.

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What about “due process”? Can a player’s eligibility for “the next game” evaporate solely on the basis of an official’s call? A very brief separation from the next game or two to preserve the integrity of the game, the safety of all and reinforce a safe environment for all concerned has repeatedly and consistently been held to be legally permissible. As noted, courts generally do not accept the role of second-guessing officials on a call in a game. And, whether the call is a DQ, a judgment call or anything else, judicial decisions on the topic have been largely consistent for decades.

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So, whatever the rulebook or the organization, officials should take heart. When students sign up for the team, they in turn, along with parents/guardians, agree to play by the rules. All the rules — not some of the rules. Rules need to be agreed upon for orderly competition — no matter what the sport. That is how we as officials get the honor of making it possible for there to be a level playing field.

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