Wednesday, January 11, 2012

Unusual Forfeit Leaves Confusion, Questions

Westlake High School boys varsity basketball coach Rob Bloom spent last Thursday in poor spirits after a ruling made by the California Interscholastic Federation-Southern Section (CIF-SS). The CIF-SS had ordered his team forfeit an apparent victory that had been earned the night before.

Bloom's team had come out on top, 73-67, during a Marmonte League contest against Agoura High last Wednesday, leaving the Westlake Warriors in first place. However, their victory was short-lived. The forfeit took them out of first place and came about due to a series of unfortunate events.

It all began in the game prior to the varsity contest. John Elliot, Westlake's junior varsity head coach, was ejected from last Wednesday's JV contest against the Agoura Chargers. Playing under National Federation of High School Associations (NFHS) rules, Elliot's ejection required him to "leave the vicinity...of the playing area."  Under NFHS Rule 10-4-5-Penalty Note, adult personnel must be "out of sight and sound...during the remainder of the game."  This, however, only applies to the specific game the adult was ejected from and has no ramifications that extend beyond the game in which the ejection occurred.

Knowing that Elliot had been ejected in the junior varsity contest, varsity head coach Bloom asked the game officials if Elliot could sit on the bench for the varsity game. The officials told Bloom that Elliot would indeed be allowed to sit on the bench. Elliot remained on the bench for the varsity game's entirety and saw Westlake pull out a six point victory. This was anything, but the end.

Agoura High had taken notice of Elliot's ejection in the JV game and his presence on the bench during the varsity game. They not had only taken notice, but filed a protest with the CIF Southern Section over Elliot's presence during the game. The Southern Section quickly upheld the protest, resulting in a Westlake forfeit.

The basis for the decision by the CIF Southern Section is grounded in the Section's Blue Book, which contains its constitution and by-laws. Rule 125.1 of the CIF-SS bylaws reiterates the NFHS rule that any coach that is ejected is disqualified for the rest of the contest. Rule 125.1 goes further than the NFHS rule stating, "the ejected coach...will be ineligible for the team's next contest."

Simple enough, right?  Mr. Elliot sits the rest of the game he is ejected from and misses his team's (the JV team's) next contest. Not so fast. If that were the case the story likely dies there.

Herein lies the problem for Westlake: the bylaws are extremely specific, and in fact gives a hypothetical that was exactly the issue in this situation. This rule just so happens to be titled, the "Accountability Rule." The rule puts responsibility on the school's principal to notify and explain the circumstances of the ejection, as well as a course of action that will "prevent a recurrence." While this responsibility pertains to the paperwork and course of action the school takes, the suspension penalty is included under the "Accountability Rule." Additionally, the rule contains a question and answer section specifically pertaining to a coach who coaches at another level:
A coach who has been ejected from a contest may not be in attendance at ANY contest prior to serving his/her mandatory suspension.  (i.e.: An ejected JV coach who is also a varsity assistant may NOT be in attendance at any contest until his/her mandatory JV suspension has been completed.
The "Accountability Rule" clearly states that an ejected coach's attendance—let alone his appearance on the bench—at the next game following an ejection from the previous contest will result in forfeiture. This was the exact penalty imposed on Westlake by the Southern Section. Since Elliot had not sat out the JV team's next contest, his suspension was still ongoing.  He had violated the terms of the mandatory suspension, so the forfeit was ordered.

But what about what the game officials telling Coach Bloom that it was okay? Clearly, Westlake was not trying to deceive its opponents nor the officials of Elliot's ejection from the prior game and presence on the bench for the varsity game.  Coach Elliot was not trying to pull a Bobby Valentine to circumvent his punishment, he was out in the open. For Bloom, Elliot and Westlake, however, it matters none.

Yes, the officials did tell Bloom it was okay, but their 'ruling' does not render the rule unenforceable.  Remember, the name of the rule is the "Accountability Rule." Quite simply it states that "principals are accountable for their interscholastic athletic program."  The responsibility and burden solely rests upon the principal of the school to ensure they are complying with the rules of the organization in which they hold membership. The language of the rule does not take into account the intent or knowledge of those involved. The language of the rule and the application by the Southern Section suggests it is a strict liability offense. This means the school is responsible regardless whether the school meant to do it or not.

Game officials are supposed to be knowledgeable in their sport's rules and understand their application. However, this only applies to the rules of the game, the NFHS rules. The game officials only have jurisdiction of one game at any given time, and that is the game they are officiating. There is nothing to suggest that these officials were anything but knowledgeable in the rules of the game and correct in their application, as they are certified officials, meeting the requirements to officiate CIF sanctioned events at the varsity level.  The officials are not required nor are they expected to to be versed in the CIF Blue Book. The Blue Book itself is irrelevant to the rules of the game and the manner in which a contest is officiated.

Should the game officials have answered a question about the rules to which they are not experts? No, officials should be cognizant and extremely careful in general to answering questions about rules they may possibly be unfamiliar to them. Are the game officials at fault for the forfeit? The CIF-SS rules say no.  The responsibility of compliance rests solely on the shoulders of the school principal. Part of that responsibility is to be familiar with the "Accountability Rule."


Anonymous said...

Great read, Jeremy! Really interesting issues very clearly explained.

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