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.