The Wisconsin Interscholastic Athletic Association has unfortunately decided to go to the mat and appeal Racine County Circuit Court Judge Michael J. Piontek’s granting of an injunction that allowed Waterford High School wrestler Hayden Halter to continue wrestling and ultimately win the Division 1 120-pound state title.
Halter was flagged at the end of the title bout in the Southern Lakes Conference championship meet and given two unsportsmanlike conduct calls, one for questioning the referee’s awarding of a point for an escape to his opponent — an inconsequential point that wouldn’t have affected the outcome of the match that Halter won — and then a second call for flexing his arms in celebration.
Under WIAA rules, two unsportsmanlike conduct calls disqualify a wrestler for one match. In the middle of the season, that is just a piffle. Sit out one match and return the next week. But because these two penalties were assessed in the conference championship meet, it meant Halter would not be allowed to compete in the following week’s WIAA regional tournament, which would have denied him the opportunity to even attempt to advance to sectionals and then chase a second straight state title (Halter, a sophomore, was a state champ as a freshman when he attended Burlington High School).
That’s a heavy penalty. Halter and his coach protested the calls at the SLC meet, but other referees on the scene upheld the calls. In the WIAA’s book, that should have been the end of it.
Under the association’s rules, an unsportsmanlike conduct call is a judgment call by a referee; judgment calls cannot be appealed for an official review after the event is concluded.
So Halter and his parents went to Racine County Circuit Court and sought an injunction to allow him to continue to compete for a state title.
At the hearing, the referee, Michael Arendt, a former Union Grove coach and current athletic director at St. Catherine’s High School, said Halter questioned his call and cursed at him after he awarded a one-point escape to Halter’s opponent and he gave Halter an unsportsmanlike call. Halter said he did not curse but said “what was that?” when the escape point was awarded.
Moments after the match had concluded, Halter shook hands with his opponent, then briefly flexed his muscles and yelled “Yes!” in celebration. Arendt issued another unsportsmanlike call — the one which would have disqualified him from further wrestling this season — and told the court Halter was taunting, directed his reaction toward spectators in the stands from Burlington. Halter told the court his celebration was directed toward his father, seated in the stands.
After hearing the conflicting testimony and reviewing video of the match, Judge Piontek concluded: “It looks like he was looking at his dad to me … I heard no profanity and I saw no taunting.”
Piontek took issue with the WIAA lawyer’s argument that the courts shouldn’t interfere in the “internal affairs of a voluntary organization” like the WIAA, which is a nonprofit, and said the organization functions more like a governmental agency.
We’re with the judge on that count. While there are club sports, the fact is that for hundreds of student athletes across the state, competing for your high school team is, realistically, the only show in town. That means being subject to WIAA rules.
Judge Piontek issued the injunction. The WIAA has given notice that it will appeal the decision to a higher court, which could potentially lead to stripping Halter of his state wrestling crown.
It is, of course, within the rights of the WIAA to appeal the judge’s ruling. But, there is some rich irony in that: Under WIAA rules, Halter had no right to an appeal and there is no appeals process for these judgment calls. His season would have ended, and it could have damaged his chances for a college wrestling scholarship.
Instead of challenging the judge’s decision, the WIAA could have – and should have — heeded Piontek’s words when he said: “What’s most distressing to me is the WIAA won’t even look at it … even when there’s evidence in front of them.”
What the WIAA needs to do is set up a formal appeals process to review questioned or questionable decisions in a timely fashion, and not just slam the door on complaints. Particularly when one referee’s decision can have such significant consequences.