A Locust Grove player upends a Douglass player during a disputed November 28 playoff game. Bryan Terry/The Oklahoman, via AP

Today an Oklahoma court will reportedly decide whether to order the last minute of an Oklahoma high school football playoff game to be replayed.  Late in the game, the referee blew a call, affecting the outcome.  The school district of the aggrieved school filed a lawsuit to get the last minute redone. A judge indicated last week that he was “skeptical” of the claim, but nonetheless enjoined the winning team from proceeding with its playoff game. Are high school football refereeing decisions correctable in court?

Here’s what happened a week ago Friday.  In the quarterfinals of Oklahoma’s Class 3A football playoffs, Frederick A. Douglass High School of Oklahoma City was trailing undefeated Locust Grove High School by a score of 20-19. With 1:07 remaining in the game, Douglass then scored the apparent go-ahead touchdown on a 65-yard touchdown pass — while its coach ran down the sideline in jubilation.  But while doing so, the coach inadvertently bumped into the referee.  As this was the second time Douglass had committed such an infraction, the referee threw a flag for a five-yard penalty.

The rules call for such a penalty to be assessed on the ensuing kickoff. But the referee, not understanding the rules properly, called back the play — and the touchdown. Locust Grove hung on for a 20-19 win.

Challenges and litigation followed. First came claims of racism.  At a news conference, state Sen. Anastasia Pittman, D-Oklahoma City, and K. Gerone Free, pastor of Greater Mount Carmel Baptist Church, said “bias” had been evident through the years. “It’s more than one high school,” Pittman said. “Mainly, they were African-American high schools, predominantly black high schools that felt like they were oppressed by officiating that was implemented and misguided.”

Then Douglass went to the Oklahoma Secondary School Activities Association (OSSAA), filing an appeal and asking that the final 1:04 to be replayed. The Association apologized and acknowledged that a mistake had been made in applying the rules. The sideline infraction was a “dead ball” foul, not a “live ball” foul. But by a vote of 8-3, the Association declined to intervene on the ground that “OSSAA Board Policy does not permit protesting an official’s errors to the Board, nor do [National Federation of State High School Association (NFHS)] football rules.”

Next, the Oklahoma City School District (where Douglass is located) filed a lawsuit, asking for temporary restraining order forbidding Locust Grove from advancing and playing its scheduled semi-final game; Douglass asked for the final 1:04 of its game to be replayed with the score reset to 25-20 (and with a chance, presumably, to kick an extra point).  The School District argued that decisions of the OSSAA are subject to review under the Oklahoma Administrative Procedures Act (APA), and further that under APA substantial evidence must support an OSSAA decision. In light of the admission that the officiating crew had misunderstood the relevant rule, the District claimed that the OSSAA should have intervened in the result and ordered that the game be replayed with Douglass ahead and 1:04 left on the clock.  The District cited the NFHS rules, which state that “State Associations may intercede in the event of unusual incidents that occur before, during or after the game officials’ jurisdiction has ended . . . .”  NFHS Football Rules Book, Section 1, Article 8.  The District argued that the OSSAA acted unreasonably in concluding that it could not overturn the results of the game.

Last week, the trial judge issued a temporary restraining order forbidding Locust Grove from playing the next round of the playoffs (the semi-finals) pending a final ruling. He wanted further information on the arguments. The judge also indicated his concern about the “slippery slope” (thinking of, one can only hope, Eugene Volokh’s explication of this kind of argument).

Meanwhile, in other related events, the OSSAA had to consider whether to declare the Douglass football team ineligible from any participation in the high school playoffs on other grounds. Apparently, a disappointed Douglass fan punched one of the referees in the game following the controversial finish.  OSSAA rules place a high school on probationary status for acts of violence directed against officials, and probationary status precludes participation in the playoffs. This would presumably render Douglass’ lawsuit moot.  [Update 12/10/14 at 4:30 E.S.T. — The OSSAA has voted 7-4 to change Douglass’ status to “warning" rather than “probationary," making them eligible to continue in the playoffs.]

I have not not been able to locate the OSSAA’s response on the merits to the pending lawsuit. However, litigation over high school sporting events is not unknown in the Sooner state. Last year, a Wright City baseball team’s legal fight to keep itself in the 2013 spring state tournament  delayed the event more than a month. And in 2005, a Shawnee football incident involving a quarterback’s who kicked an opponent pushed the Class 5A championship game back three weeks — his school argued, unsuccessfully, that he should not have been suspended from future games as a punishment.

Caselaw on the ability of courts to intervene in football game outcomes is sparse. A 1981 decision by the Georgia Supreme Court overturned a trial court ruling ordered a high school football game to be restarted at 7:01 in the fourth quarter because a football referee had misinterpreted the rules in failing to award for a roughing the punter infraction both a fifteen-yard penalty and a first down. The Supreme Court explained (without dissent) that “courts of equity in this state are without authority to review decisions of football referees because those decisions do not present judicial controversies.”

The Douglass lawsuit seems far-fetched. Mistakes about the rules are common in high school football, no less than other sporting events. (Here’s ESPN’s collection of the 10 worst calls of all time.) Even assuming that the OSSAA has some sort of discretionary authority to intervene in a football game’s outcome (which seems questionable), prudence would strongly dictate not opening that Pandora’s Box.

More broadly, lost in the litigation (brought by a school district, no less) seems to be the larger point that the reason for high school athletics is not primarily to determine a state champion, but rather to teach students lessons in such things as teamwork, discipline, and overcoming adversity.  One of those lessons is that sometimes referee’s mistakes — even injustices — may happen, in an athletic contest no less than elsewhere.  Learning from those bad bounces, and moving beyond them, is what students need to succeed in life. Sadly, those more important lessons are being overshadowed with legal battles over rules interpretations and injunctions. The court should throw this case out.

An update on a strange coincidence:  It turns out that on the same night that the referee improperly assessed a dead ball foul in this high school game in Oklahoma, a refereeing crew in a high school game in Kentucky made exactly the same mistake.  The Kentucky High School Athletic Association sanctioned the refereeing crew involved, but refused to allow the game to be replayed because of the difficulty of determining exactly how to do that fairly.  No litigation followed.

An update on sportsmanship:  A commenter notes that in a 1940 football game between Cornell and Dartmouth, Cornell was given an extra down — a fifth down.  They scored to win the game 7-3. But when the error was discovered, the Cornell President telegraphed Dartmouth offering to forfeit the game.  And Dartmouth accepted.

Would it be good sportsmanship for Locust Grove to do the same here?  The problem with the strict analogy to the Cornell-Dartmouth game is that Cornell got an extra play at the goal line with just nine seconds remaining in the game.  It was almost indisputable that the bad refereeing altered the game’s outcome.  In contrast, in the Douglass-Locust Grove game, Locust Grove would have had around a minute to take the ensuing kickoff to try and score the go-ahead touchdown (assuming that Douglass kicked an extra point) or the tying touchdown (assuming that Douglass went for, and made, a two-point conversion — what-if possibilities).  Interestingly, Wikipedia describes the Cornell-Dartmouth game as ” the only time in the history of football that a game was decided off the field [citation needed].”  Will the Douglass-Locust Grove game become the second?

A variation on this sportsmanship argument is that Locust Grove should have taken the lead and offered to replay the last minute of the game.   Here’s what Oklahoman columnist Berry Tramel wrote about the possibility:

This isn’t about who’s right. This is about what’s right. This is about freeing the Locust Grove players from a lifetime of what-ifs. Freeing them from the gnawing feeling of ill-gotten gain. Giving them the precious gift that there are more important things than finishing first and having the most toys. What an opportunity to show, instead of tell. What an opportunity to instill those life lessons. . . . [W]hile winning a state championship would be great for Locust Grove, even greater would be teaching a bunch of teen-agers that doing the right thing is never a wrong way to go.

Seems like a great idea to me — although events may have moved beyond this possibility now.

Update: In an earlier version of this story, I tried to link to a photograph of the disputed play.  A video can be found here.   I’ve also corrected a few typos and spelling errors, including an error on the name of Frederick A. Douglass High School.