The latest sign of the apocalypse

The Chicago Tribune reports:

A judge will hear arguments Wednesday on the controversial finish to a high school playoff football game, the final outcome hanging in the balance despite the lack of a flying pigskin or crunching tackles.

Regardless of what happens in the Daley Center courtroom, the fiasco involving the contest between Fenwick and Plainfield North high schools has brought to the forefront issues of sportsmanship, ethics and a basic question that does not have a simple answer: What’s the right thing to do?

As it stands, Plainfield North is listed as the victor of Saturday’s Class 7A semifinal game. The Tigers defeated Fenwick 18-17 in overtime. Or did they?

The convoluted turn of events has led to a debate over rules and bylaws, contracts and lawsuits, while drawing the customary, if always unfortunate, pointed fingers at officials. It has also prompted a discussion about the best way to act after an agonizing defeat and a debated win, a victory which all parties agree occurred because of a mistake.

“There’s a difference,” said Michael Josephson, founder and president of the Josephson Institute of Ethics, “between what you have a right to do and what is right to do.”

While those conversations take place at coffee shops, on social media and sports talk radio, lawyers for Fenwick, a private Catholic school in Oak Park, will stand before a Cook County judge to urge her to overturn the result by ruling on their lawsuit against the Illinois High School Association.

“To allow this unjust result to stand would fly in the face of everything the IHSA stands for in its administration of high school athletics — fairness, reliability, accountability and integrity,” the lawyers write.

How the schools arrived at this point is complicated, even for football fans.

Near the end of regulation in Saturday’s semifinal game, Fenwick was clinging to a 10-7 lead and had the ball at its own 15-yard line. With four seconds left, the Friars’ quarterback threw a deep pass on the fourth down for an incompletion, seemingly ending the game. But the officials ruled that play to be intentional grounding, a penalty. The officiating crew then (mistakenly) awarded Plainfield North one play with zeros on the clock, allowing them to kick a game-tying field goal.

“Not sure what just happened,” the Fenwick athletic director posted on Twitter.

In extra time, both teams scored, but Plainfield North ran in a two-point conversion, setting off a wild celebration for the Tigers and eliciting anger and confusion from the Fenwick faithful.

“It would be one thing if it was a missed holding call or if it was a judgment call, but this was not a judgment call,” Fenwick Principal Peter Groom said Tuesday. “This was a rule that was not applied when there was no more time left on the clock. I don’t know how I tell my kids (to accept the outcome) in this situation.”

Several hours after the game, the IHSA issued a statement that stated the officials erred when they gave Plainfield North one final play after the passing penalty. The IHSA then cited bylaw 6.033, which states “the decisions of game officials are final,” and those decisions are not reviewable. Executive Director Craig Anderson offered “my sincerest apologies” to the Fenwick coaches, players and fans.

The IHSA board of directors convened an early Monday morning conference call about the game, determining the association’s bylaws did not allow a review of Fenwick’s appeal.

Groom said he resigned his position on the IHSA’s board of directors Monday when the school decided to file a legal challenge. He said while he bore no grudge against the organization, a lawsuit was the only way to fix what he considered an injustice.

He said the IHSA needs to have a mechanism to overturn game results in cases of clear and definitive error — he gave the example of a scorekeeping mistake in a basketball game — even though he said he understood the hazard of opening that door.

“It’s a slippery slope,” he said. “Believe me, I get it. This is a horrible situation we’re all in.”

In the 41-page lawsuit, Fenwick’s lawyers seek “a declaration to ‘fix’ a breach of contract by IHSA officials. By express written contract, all parties agree that the IHSA officials lacked authority under the contract to force the teams to continue to play after the clock expired.”

Fenwick wants the judge to issue a temporary restraining order, declaring the game to have ended when the clock reached zero in the fourth quarter.

Others are urging a more gracious solution: that Plainfield North give up the spot in the championship game as a gesture of goodwill, acknowledging their win was the result of an error.

“If we care about ethics, if we care about sportsmanship, when is it justified to hang on to a medal you didn’t earn?” asked Josephson, of the ethics institute. “The greater issue is why are you holding on to a victory you know wasn’t fairly won?”

Tom Hernandez, spokesman for Plainfield Community Consolidated District 202, said district and Plainfield North administrators and those associated with the football team empathize with Fenwick, but the IHSA “is the sole and final arbiter of this.”

“The team is practicing and they’re preparing to play at 4 p.m. Saturday,” Hernandez said.

The school is not considering forfeiting the Fenwick contest, nor giving up its spot in the championship game, Hernandez said.

Fenwick players also took to the field to practice Tuesday in case the judge rules in their favor.

Several parents of Plainfield North players lamented the situation but criticized Fenwick for taking the matter to court.

“I think everyone feels bad it happened this way, but there’s lots of bad calls in sports,” said Bill Stoll, whose son plays on the team. “At the end of the day, it’s a game. Everyone in sports has something go against them. The rules are in place for a reason.”

Football parent George Miller finds it “hilarious” that many at Fenwick have called on Plainfield North to step aside for the title game.

“It’s tragic,” Miller said. “Our kids played just as hard as Fenwick. But for them to tell us to ‘do the right thing?’ There’s a snowball’s chance in hell that if it were Fenwick in our position that they’d do that. It’s not for us to do. We played within the perimeters of the rules, and the refs made a mistake. It is what it is.”

Bruce Howard of the National Federation of State High School Associations, which writes the rule books for high school sports, said the organization had no directive governing when the results of a game can be overturned.

While some state associations have overruled the final outcome of a game, including a 2008 decision by the IHSA in a wrestling tournament, Howard was unaware of a judge changing the result. He pointed to a 2014 case in Oklahoma in which a high school sought to replay the final minute of a playoff game after officials mistakenly took away a touchdown that should have counted.

The judge declined to intervene, saying such a move “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 that hurts both the court system and the citizens it is designed to protect.”

The NCAA has a similar rule declaring that the score of a game is final once a referee declares the contest over. But high-profile officiating errors have prompted some to advocate for a change.

The most recent episode came in a September football game between Oklahoma State and Central Michigan. Just as in the Fenwick-Plainfield game, Oklahoma State tried to kill the clock by throwing the ball out of bounds on the fourth down, only for a referee to call intentional grounding and mistakenly award Central Michigan a final play.

Central Michigan ended up scoring on a miraculous 51-yard pass and lateral, giving the school a 30-27 victory even though officials later conceded that the play never should have happened.

“We were told the result is final and there is nothing we can do about it,” Oklahoma State athletic director Mike Holder said after the game. “In my mind, it is incomprehensible that a misapplication of the rules after time has expired can’t be corrected.”

An NCAA spokesman said Tuesday that while officials have had informal discussions about changing the rule governing final results, nothing official has been proposed.

Before everything else, it is hard to believe that, after a highly publicized bad call, the exact same call was made two months later. Football rules prohibit a half ending on a defensive penalty, but intentional grounding by definition is an offensive penalty, even on fourth down. If there is no time left, then the opposing offense should not have gotten that one play.

So what did the judge do Wednesday? The Tribune reports:

A Cook County judge on Wednesday turned back a legal challenge by Fenwick High School to overturn its disputed loss in a football playoff game last weekend.

The ruling by Judge Kathleen Kennedy came in a lawsuit filed by Fenwick against the Illinois High School Association, which had refused to hear an appeal by the private Catholic school in Oak Park, citing a bylaw declaring that decisions by officials shall be final.

The decision clears the way for Plainfield North High School to play in the Class 7A championship against East St. Louis on Saturday at Memorial Stadium in Champaign.

“Here, as on the playing field, one side wins and one side loses,” Kennedy said as she announced her ruling after hearing about 45 minutes of arguments from lawyers and taking a lengthy break to mull over her decision.

A Fenwick spokesman said the school will not pursue further legal action and wished Plainfield North luck in the championship game.

Kennedy ruled in a Daley Center courtroom packed mostly with Fenwick supporters and a few players. Fenwick’s lawyer had warned the crowd to stay quiet and show respect for her ruling no matter how it went.

A mistaken call by officials with no time left allowed Plainfield North to tie the game with a field goal in regulation and then win 18-17 in overtime on a two-point conversion.

Fenwick’s lawyer, Peter Rush, said officials didn’t have the authority to continue the game and by doing so violated IHSA bylaws that rules will be enforced.

Rush disputed the IHSA’s claim that its bylaws blocked it from correcting the controversial loss, saying the agency did just that with a downstate soccer game.

David Bressler, an IHSA attorney, said officials make hundreds of bad calls every week and that courts would be flooded with lawsuits if Fenwick won the legal fight.

“I wish there was a way that Fenwick could participate in the game, but there’s not,” Bressler said. “Sometimes the law is not fair.”

Packer fans know about that:

So, for that matter, do fans of Cedar Grove–Belgium, which lost its state championship game because of what appeared to be an incorrect call:

Bad official calls, however, are not and cannot be grounds for lawsuits. The Cook County judge had no choice, because the first judge who overturns a game result on the basis of an incorrect official’s decision will open a Pandora’s box that will never be closed. (And as it is no game is ever decided in one play, even the Interceptouchdown.)

Moreover, what is the school teaching its students? When a human error occurs, sue? When things don’t go your way, find a lawyer?



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