The Wisconsin Interscholastic Athletic Association is “deeply troubled” by the increasing trend of schools appealing the decisions of onsite officials via lawsuits and sent a letter to its 516 members school asking them to stop.
The issue stems from a March 4 high school boys’ basketball game between top-ranked St. Thomas More and Dr. Howard Fuller Collegiate Academy in Milwaukee. According to CBS58.com, the WIAA suspended St. Thomas More’s entire varsity roster after a Fuller player stepped over a St. Thomas More player who was on the floor. At the time, St. Thomas More led by 30 points with about one minute left in the game.
“The STM player got up and shoved the Fuller player, who then shoved back,” CBS58.com reports. “According to the officials’ report, every player from both teams then left the bench area. Officials ended the game, awarded the win to St. Thomas More, and penalized all players with an unsportsmanlike foul. The WIAA used that report to suspend the entire STM team, causing them to forfeit the next night’s playoff game against Brown Deer. However, video shows not every player left the St. Thomas More bench and several of the players that were already on the floor, in the game, walked away from the altercation that eventually included fans/parents.”
St. Thomas More filed an injunction to reinstate the team’s season, which had ended with the WIAA’s suspension. A Milwaukee County judge ruled in favor of the team, and the Cavaliers went on to reach the semifinals of the state tournament on March 17— but not before the judge’s temporary restraining order disrupted the tournament’s schedule.
“It is important to note that WIAA executive staff has determined that the game officials have properly applied all WIAA and NFHS [National Federation of State High School Associations] rules and procedures,” Stephanie Hauser, the WIAA’s executive director, wrote in the letter to schools dated March 14. “These rules are member-driven and are reviewed and updated annually. Therefore, the trend of members schools appealing calls made by onsite officials to the courts undermines not only those officials but also the rules that are in place. We are deeply troubled by this trend.”
John Hoch, president of St. Thomas More and head coach of the boys’ basketball team, told CBS58.com that his players attempted to de-escalate the altercation and claimed none of them threw punches — adding that three St. Thomas More players were injured during the incident. He also asked the WIAA to review video of the game, but they would only refer to the game officials’ report, per WIAA rules, Hoch says.
“It’s really been a roller coaster, because we were really excited going into the playoffs,” he said. “We had a really good season and we thought we could advance far into the playoffs. Then I think there was shock when this whole thing occurred. We had never been through anything like this. It had never happened in this building before. Anything like this in the history of the school.”
The WIAA’s Board of Control issued the following statement, which also was included in Hauser’s letter to member schools:
The WIAA Board of Control staunchly supports the WIAA staff and the licensed game officials. With respect to a team being put back into the tournament series by order of the court, we are committed to doing all we can to address the situation in the appropriate manner and time frame.
While it is unfortunate that this issue may cause some to question the integrity of this year’s boys’ basketball state tournament, we ask that all member schools do what they can to support the student-athletes participating. Please know that we will use any and all available options necessary to ensure that the membership rules are enforced and all tournament results are valid.
Above all else, the Board of Control will continue to support all 516 member schools and preserve the membership rules, regulations and bylaws.
Late last year, another Wisconsin school — Edgewood High School in Madison — filed a lawsuit seeking an injunction that would allow the school’s football team back into the state playoffs after the WIAA determined the team had fielded an ineligible player. School officials blamed a “technical error” and claimed neither the team nor the player in question “did anything wrong.”
A Dane County Circuit Court judge declined Edgewood’s request for an injunction, stating that “there’s absolutely no evidence to support that the WIAA acted in an egregiously arbitrary manner,” according to Channel3000.com.
The player, Cameron “Cam” Fane, “began high school as a student at Madison West before moving to Texas, attending school there beginning at the start of the 2018-19 school year through the fall semester of the 2020-21 school year,” according to the website. “At that point, he returned to Wisconsin and began attending Edgewood.”
“WIAA rules clearly restrict high school athletic eligibility to eight consecutive semesters (four years) of high school,” the WIAA wrote in a brief filed in court. “The WIAA may grant a fifth-year eligibility waiver in cases of substantiated extenuating circumstances. The student-athlete at issue completed eight consecutive semesters of high school at the close of the 2020-21 school year.”
With Edgewood out of the playoffs, school president Mike Elliott issued a statement that read in part: “Though WIAA denied our appeal, we sincerely hope they address the gray areas this case has highlighted so no other team has to experience this harsh and heartbreaking outcome.”
Not surprisingly, parents are on the side of the schools that press the lawsuits, noting their support in the comments found under the articles on the various news sources. That alone is not a surprise; many parents want their children to receive more playing time and a chance at a higher-profile championship event in order to catch the eye of potential college coaches - but they don't want to spend their own money on a lawsuit. Lawsuits in sports are a trend that has been on the rise, including the phenomenon of parents suing coaches to get their children more playing time in games, often claiming that not having enough time on the field is damaging their college (or even pro) career prospects. And some families are claiming emotional pain and suffering; a youth hockey player told reporters he never wanted to play again because he did not receive the MVP award at the end of the season, despite the fact that he led in scoring and assists.
And it’s not just the school setting where this is occurring. A Washington Post article noted that a club volleyball player and her parents sued after she was refused the opportunity to switch from one club to another, after the club with which she had originally signed could not give her the playing time she felt she needed.
Why the rise in lawsuits? Herb Appenzeller, author of From the Gym to the Jury, told anchors of ABC News Good Morning America that it’s simply a reflection of any other behavior in the news.
"They pretty much mirror society today. Everybody feels that if they are wronged, they need compensation. We have a lot of cases where people think their son or daughter should be on varsity, and when they are put on JV team, they sue."
There's no telling whether Wisconsin schools will stop pressing lawsuits to overturn officials' decisions. But in an increasingly litigious society, the chances don't look good.