Commentary: Federal Court Right Not to Overturn a Ref’s Bad Call

Commentary: Federal Court Right Not to Overturn a Ref’s Bad Call

Black high school in Oklahoma gets its day in court but loses its quest to replay a game.

Published December 15, 2014

It was the only decision that would have been just, even in the face of a gross injustice. But when a federal judge ruled Thursday that the game Frederick A. Douglass High School lost 20-19 to Locust Grove last month must remain as it was, he made the best ruling possible for high school sports in America.

For the courtroom is the wrong venue for deciding victory or defeat. Games must be played out on the field. While some outcomes might offend us because of the imperfection of the refereeing, these imperfections ought not be set right in the court.

No doubt, Douglass High, a Black school in Oklahoma City, got a bad call. The Trojans might have been on their way to a state title if not for a referee who misinterpreted the rulebook.

The details for you: Douglass High trailed 20-19 in a semifinal game with less than two minutes to play. Douglass had a chance to win; it also had the football.

With 1:04 on the clock, the school scored on a 58-yard touchdown pass, but on the catch-and-run, a Douglass High coach got too excited, raced along the sidelines and accidentally bumped one of the referees.

A flag was thrown. The referees erased the touchdown and assessed a 5-yard penalty. The yardage on the penalty was right, but the penalty itself should have been assessed on the ensuing kickoff.

Douglass and Oklahoma City school officials, saying the Black boys “endured irreparable harm,” asked a federal court to reinstate the team’s touchdown and allow Locust Grove to play out the remaining time – something almost unheard of in interscholastic sports.

And for good reason: Court is not the place to decide games.

Anyone who has followed sports has seen bad calls destroy a game’s outcome, some more egregious than others. Who doesn’t remember the five downs Colorado got in 1990 when it scored on the last play of the game to beat Missouri 33-31?

How about the perfect game Detroit Tigers pitcher Armando Galarraga lost with two outs in the ninth when veteran umpire Jim Joyce called a runner safe at first base when he was clearly out?

The list of bad referee calls is as thick as Webster’s Unabridged Dictionary. Bad calls make public noise, but people move on. They don’t get stuck on the error; they can’t afford to. The moment can’t be recreated, nor should it.

That’s the message to the Black boys at Douglass. Their hurt is visceral, and their hurt carries an ocean of tears with it. The courtroom, however, was never the remedy for them, which is what U.S. District Judge Bernard M. Jones III decided.

He said to solve athletic games in a courtroom risks ushering in “a new era of robed referees and meritless litigation due to disagreement with or disdain for decisions of gaming officials.”

That’s a solution far less palatable than what happened last month to Black boys at Douglass on a football field.

The opinions expressed here do not necessarily reflect those of BET Networks.

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(Photo: AP Photo/The Oklahoman, Bryan Terry, File)

Written by Justice B. Hill

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