Often over the years, when asked to provide a perspective about sports officiating, I would make an analogy between what we do and what judges in court do. We each learn the rules, enforce them and do so in an impartial manner. This impartiality is an attribute we demand and greatly rely upon. I have immense respect for the men and women who serve as judges. It is because of them primarily that we live in relative comfort and safety under the rule of law. Without them, the laws are just ink on paper. Without sports officials, the rules of the game are just ink on paper.
The National Association of Sports Officials was founded here in Racine in 1979. Today, NASO has 29,000 dues paying members across the country, in all sports and at all levels. NASO has become the leading advocate on behalf of sports officials. For the past 38 years, the work NASO has been doing on behalf of officials has begun here in Racine.
Now, sadly, I have been confronted by a troubling and troublesome ruling by Circuit Court Judge Michael J. Piontek. Judge Piontek heard the plea for injunctive relief by the Waterford high school wrestler and his parents. During a recent match, the wrestler was charged with two unsportsmanlike fouls and by the rules of the Wisconsin Interscholastic Athletic Association, prohibited from participating in his next match. In this case, that next match was the beginning of the state tournament rounds. Missing that meant the wrestler was out for the entire tournament. The athlete and his parents were outraged and when they learned the WIAA does not permit an appeal of a referee’s judgment call, decided to take legal action in hopes of being granted a temporary restraining order.
A three-hour hearing took place. When it was over, Judge Piontek ruled in favor of the wrestler. He was quoted as saying he watched a video and did not hear any profanity directed at the referee nor did he feel what the wrestler did in primping himself to the crowd was not sufficient to be called a foul for lack of sportsmanship. In effect, judge Piontek, became the replay official, where replay is not permitted, and chose to override the decision of the official on the mat.
What I will say without equivocation is this: Judge Piontek played armchair referee and the consequences, if left unchecked and unchallenged will bring uncertainty and loss of belief in the outcomes of high school contests. Imagine how many aggrieved parents/fans will now consider using the court system to challenge a referee’s judgment call. Not hard to fathom where this will lead. Sports and the courts will become more than just phraseology. As an aside, it is worth noting that historically, courts have been loathe to engage themselves in judgment calls made by officials. They have done that for good reason.
We at NASO know a couple of things: first, the referees have been tasked with the responsibility of knowing the rules and enforcing them to the best of our ability. Much of what we are asked to do comes in the form of judgment calls, like the one in this celebrated wrestling match. You ask us, for very little compensation, to make impartial judgment calls that ensure the game is played by the rules while emphasizing fairness and safety. We do that. Now though, we have the specter of Judge Piontek’s ruling staring back at us. A ruling by the way that was done by someone who has little familiarity with context that comes only with being an experienced sports official.
It is my sincere hope that Judge Piontek’s ruling will be subject to an appeal and reversal. If not, what will be coming our way will be this: often quite ordinary and mundane calls by sports officials will be subject to litigation brought by upset fans/parents. We officials will keep doing our jobs but we will do so looking over our shoulders. Recruiting men, women and young people to join our ranks just got harder.
An editorial from the Baltimore Sun:
When perpetrators of racist incidents are caught in the act, too often they hide behind ignorance. Otherwise intelligent people suddenly don’t know that what they did was offensive or insensitive.
Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam used the argument to explain away why, as a young man, he darkened his face with black shoe polish as part of a Michael Jackson costume: “I look back now and regret that I did not understand the harmful legacy of an action like that,” he said during a press conference. That state’s attorney general, Mark R. Herring, blamed “ignorance and glib attitudes” for his decision to wear blackface during his college days as part of a costume depicting rapper Kurtis Blow. And it’s not just Virginia: A Twitter user took it upon herself to see if there were racist or blackface images in old University of Maryland yearbooks, and it only took “5 minutes,” to find them, she wrote, prompting a quick apology from University President Wallace Loh.
You would think that people would know by now not to dress in black face, a form of costume worn by white performers in the 19th century (and, sadly, well beyond) that depicted offensive caricatures of African Americans. Painting swastikas on any wall is also not OK. Neither is any depiction of nooses. Using racial epithets, a huge no-no. But as the number of hate incidents continue to grow, it has become apparent the message hasn’t gotten around to everyone. On Thursday, Gucci stopped selling a black turtleneck sweater that reminded people of black face. The sweater pulls up over the bottom half of the face with a cut out and large, exaggerated lips around the mouth. Seriously.
The company apologized and said they would use the incident as a learning moment. Apparently, there are plenty of other people around the country in need of such a moment.
Anne Arundel County officials, to their great credit, are doing something about it. Spurred by a racial incident that occurred at one of its schools last year, it is seeking to start conversations about race that it hopes will enlighten their students and make them better people. Beginning next school year, all ninth graders will be required to take a diversity seminar in order to graduate. As Lauren Lumpkin reported in The Annapolis Capital, adoption of such a rule came two days after a Broadneck High School student used a racist slur in a Snapchat message targeted at Annapolis High School’s mostly African-American basketball team, which had just beaten the Broadneck team. The genesis of the half-credit seminar, which was taught as a pilot before full adoption, came after a petition called “Kool Kids Klan” circulated around Anne Arundel High School in 2017 urging students to join a white supremacy movement.
During the seminar students explore how cultural interactions influence situations and how people from different backgrounds may interpret the same situation differently, according to the curriculum. It is hard to tell how candid the discussions will be and if the class will directly take on issues such as black face, white supremacy and Confederate flags. Teachers aren’t allowed to show political views, which gives some reason for pause given the racial politics of the day. But hopefully they can spur robust conversations without specifically choosing a side and make the class more than a feel-good activity.
At any rate, adopting such a curriculum is at least a first step in reaching the next generation before racist attitudes are imprinted on them for a lifetime. Every school in the state should adopt some kind of racial sensitivity training. If they’re not sure where to start, the Anti-Defamation League has developed curricula and is eager to help. We need to find ways for adults to have such uncomfortable conversations about race, too.
Perhaps if Howard County had such a course requirement, four teens wearing hoods and masks would not have spray-painted racial epithets and swastikas at Glenelg High School last May. The last of the teens was ordered to serve weekends in jail under a plea deal announced Wednesday.
It may be too late for others to be enlightened, but we should at least work to get to a place where no one can use the ignorance defense anymore.
It is hard to believe in Virginia that two highly educated men did not know the meaning of what they were doing in a state whose racist legacy and practices run deep. In North Carolina, the college yearbook of Charlotte Mayor Roy Cooper shows two members of a fraternity in white robes depicting a lynching of a man in blackface. Mr. Cooper is not shown in any racist photo, and the University of North Carolina denounced the photos and said racism is not tolerated on their campus. But why did it take until now for them to say something? If that’s not racially offensive, we don’t know what is.