Monday, May 22, 2017

Dangerous Precedent - GHSA Overturns Judgment Call

In a decision contradicting years of legal precedent & NFHS rules, GHSA reversed an umpire's judgment call as the result of a post-game protest filed by the losing team.

Last week, we reported the curious case of Lee County vs Johns Creek High School and the Georgia playoff game that hinged on a single appeal play ruling in the bottom of the last inning of regulation.

Umpires and Judges: What does the law say?
Photo: Nancy Stahl, NYTimes
To recapitulate, with two outs and the bases loaded in the bottom of the 7th, a Johns Creek batter received a fourth ball and walk to force the apparent winning run. After a protest from defensive Lee County's head coach that Johns Creek baserunner R2 failed to touch third base, the umpires ruled the runner out on appeal, pursuant to NFHS Rule 9-1-1, and cancelled the run pursuant to 9-1-1 Note 2.

Lee County went on to win the ballgame, and Johns Creek protested that it should have won instead due to an umpires' error.

Upon receiving Johns Creek's initial protest, GHSA Executive Director Gary Phillips on Thursday ruled the umpires' decision was one of judgment and, therefore, not protestable; the ruling must stand.

Board of Trustees President Glenn White.
GHSA counsel Alan Connell disagreed and granted Johns Creek not a protest, but an "appeal."

On Friday, a GHSA Appeals Board heard the appeal and, like Phillips, declined to uphold it.

On Monday, the GHSA Board of Trustees elected to overturn the umpires' call—based on the rationale that the Board of Trustees felt that the judgment call had been incorrect.

POLITICAL SIDEBAR: The GHSA has been dealing with organizational issues, even prior to the Johns Creek & Lee County baseball incident. In February, GHSA Board of Trustees President and Model High School Principal Glenn White voted to recommended that Executive Director Phillips resign; Phillips accordingly agreed to retire at the end of the 2016-17 school year. Meanwhile, Georgia House Bill 415 and Senate Bill 2013 proposed that the state replace the GHSA with a new statewide governing body.

Georgia State Representative John Meadows in February "said he gets more complaints about the GHSA – from schools, referees, coaches and parents – than about everything else put together, 'and basically I’m sick of it.' He added, 'I don’t think they know what their job is.'”

Clearly not.

Contrary to decades of legal precedent, Trustees President White made it clear that the Trustees sustained the appeal and overturned the on-field officials' call based on a matter of judgment—not on an issue of rule interpretation:
It swayed me to believe that the wrong call was made and that it was not in the best interest of students to support that call. The bottom line is what’s right and what’s wrong, and I thought it was right for Johns Creek to go back to Lee County and play a third game. 
If it’s the second inning of a baseball game or second quarter of a football game, you’ve got plenty of time to overcome a bad call,’’ White said. ‘’This situation is a different. It’s a semifinal state playoff game in baseball, and it’s the end of the game. I just see that differently. That had lot to do with swaying my opinion. 
It’s just not practical to review every missed call and every kid that was (called) safe but was actually out. We have set a precedent, so we need to get ready because there will probably be other people coming to see us.
This is odd, as GHSA Bylaw 2.92(e) states, "The National Federation prohibits the use of video tape to review an official’s decision."

As for the legality of overturning an umpire's on-field judgment call after-the-fact, the Courts have routinely ruled, for approximately 35 years, that such practice is not legally tenable:
> 1981: Georgia High School Association vs Waddell: The Georgia Supreme Court ruled that it does not possess authority to review the decision of a high school sports official. In what was, at the time, a landmark decision to establish long-term precedent, the Supreme Court held, "We go now further and hold that courts for equality in this state are without authority to review decisions of football referees because those decisions do not present judicial controversies."

> December 2005: Brown vs. OSSAA. Referees ejected player Tucker Brown for fighting at the end of a game, resulting in an automatic two-game suspension, pursuant to state association rules. Brown's mother sued the OSSAA seeking an injunction to allow Tucker to play. In an Oklahoma Supreme Court decision, the Court opined, "It is not within our province to act as 'super referees' to alter or overturn the referee's determinations. Neither may we, because a referee does not make a call, do so for the official -- we may not 'call the game' or construe the official's failure to see every infraction as arbitrary."

> December 2005: Haverstraw Stony-Point Central School District vs NYSPHSAA. The District and high school wrestler Frank Rodriguez filed a lawsuit against the state after a referee's assessment of a two-point penalty against Rodriguez cost him his state title match. A judge refused to entertain the District's lawsuit, writing that, "To establish a precedent of reviewing and potentially reversing a referee's judgment call from the distant ivory tower of a judge's chambers would cause unending confusion in the interscholastic athletic system."

> December 2015: Oklahoma City School District vs OSSAA. The District, on behalf of Douglass High School, filed a lawsuit against OSSAA claiming that an on-field official's judgment call caused its team to lose a game, and that OSSAA failed to allow it to replay the game so as to remedy the situation. In ruling for the OSSAA, Judge Bernard Jones wrote that "what transpired during and to some degree after the disputed quarterfinal could be considered by many as a tragedy. More tragic, however, would be for this Court to assert itself in this matter...There is neither statute nor case law allowing this Court discretion to order the replaying of a high school football game."

> November 2016: Fenwick High School vs. IHSA. Fenwick filed a lawsuit after the IHSA failed to reverse an on-field ruling. The judge ruled in favor of the IHSA, writing that it is not the court's responsibility or jurisdiction to overturn an on-field referee's call, even though Fenwick suffered irreparable harm as the result of an official's failure to properly apply a rule.

Perhaps Judge Jones wrote it best, "this slippery slope of solving athletic contests in court instead of on campus will inevitably usher in a new era of robed referees and meritless litigation due to disagreement with or disdain for decisions of gaming officials—an unintended consequence which hurts both the court system and the citizens it is designed to protect."

Thus, GHSAA Board of Trustees President and robed referee White's decision runs in direct contravention to not only years of legal precedent as specified above, but the NFHS baseball rulebook itself. Although, as we wrote, the NFHS vs GHSA allowance of protests is legally ambiguous (NFHS requires a clearly delineated protest procedure, GHSA doesn't specify one in its Bylaws), let us assume for the purpose of discussion that protests are authorized.

Rule 10-4 states, "Any umpire’s decision which involves judgment, such as whether a hit is fair or foul, whether a pitch is a strike or a ball, or whether a runner is safe or out, is final." Rule 10-5 states, "The use of videotape or equipment by game officials for the purpose of making calls or rendering decisions is prohibited."

Rule 4-5 states, "It is optional on the part of a state association as to whether protests are permitted. When allowed, protests are permitted regarding rules one through nine only."

Thus, a protest concerning the umpires' conduct (the Johns Creek complaint alleged "inappropriate conduct" on the part of the umpires)—such as a judgment call delineated by 10-4, or any other conduct related to Umpiring Rule 10—is prohibited by Rule 4-5.

Johns Creek's original protest cited Official Baseball Rule 5.08(b), as opposed to the High School rule 9-1-1, regarding runner responsibility to touch bases on a game-winning walk (OBR requires just the batter and runner from third to touch their respective bases; NFHS requires all runners to touch up).

As for the question of the appeal's validity, while OBR requires all appeals to be live ball in nature, NFHS authorizes dead ball appeals. At the end of the game, appeals may be filed at any time until the umpires leave the playing field (umpires remained on the field throughout the process).

Conclusion: GHSA Board of Trustees President Glenn White "thought it was right" to overturn an on-field official's judgment call because he felt "that it was not in the best interest of students to support [the on-field] call," which he deemed a "wrong call."

In an odd reversal of fates, Official Baseball Rule 7.04 states, "No protest shall ever be permitted on judgment decisions by the umpire," whereas NFHS Rule 4-5 does not explicitly state this (though it certainly implies it by saying that protests shall only be permitted regarding rules one through nine only), leaving it up to the state to delineate the protest procedure. The GHSA Constitution and Bylaws, however, fail to prescribe such a process for baseball protests.


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