A high school football player, who had been suspended for two games for unsportsmanlike behavior, will have to serve that suspension after all, in light of the Supreme Court of Oklahoma’s ruling last month vacating an injunction that had lifted that suspension.
In its decision, the high court found that the Oklahoma Secondary School Activities Association’s “application and the discipline imposed are reasonable and there is no evidence that the penalty was called in anything other than good faith and in conjunction with the rule of law by a referee who was positioned to see the play and who reacted immediately to the player’s action.”
The incident that led to the suspension occurred on November 19, 2005 during the state’s Class 5A quarterfinal football playoffs. In the final seconds of the game, a referee ejected two players, one of which was the plaintiff Tucker Brown, for fighting. Brown was also automatically suspended for the next two games — the semifinal and, assuming the Shawnee High School football team’s success, the state championship round.
Shawnee High School representatives protested Brown’s suspension before the Association. After meeting with Shawnee’s head football coach and Shawnee’s athletic director, reviewing videotape of the incident and the written reports from game officials, and interviewing the head referee in charge, the Association upheld the suspension.
On November 22, 2005, the player’s mother, as his next friend, filed a petition for a temporary and permanent injunction. Although Shawnee’s head football coach appeared as a witness for the player, no official representatives of the Shawnee High School joined in the injunction proceedings. A hearing was held in the matter on November 23.
The judge granted the temporary injunction, reasoning that the opposing coach, having approached the referees and having engaged them in conversation, created “an appearance of impropriety.”
The association appealed the ruling.
Addressing the prospect of judicial interference with a voluntary association, the court wrote that Oklahoma state courts “have long abided by the general rule that the courts should not intervene except to ascertain whether association proceedings are conducted pursuant to the rules and laws of the organization, in good faith and lawfully. Absent fraudulent, collusive, unreasonable, arbitrary or capricious behavior, this Court may not overturn a voluntary association’s enforcement of its rules. We may not interject ourselves in the Association’s internal affairs if the rules are reasonable, lawful, in keeping with public policy, and are interpreted fairly and reasonably and enforced uniformly and not arbitrarily.”
Next, the court reviewed the Association’s construction of Rule 4, Conduct of Students, Rules Governing Interscholastic Activities in Senior High Schools (2005-06), which provides in pertinent part:
“. . . A student whose flagrant or unsportsmanlike conduct consists of fighting, cursing or using foul language toward a game official will be automatically suspended from participating in a minimum of the next two regularly scheduled games or contests on the same level of competition that his/her team plays. . . . Fighting is defined, but is not limited to, any player. . . striking an opponent with arm(s), leg(s), foot(feet), or other object(s), attempting to strike an opponent with arm(s), leg(s), foot(feet), or other object(s) regardless if there is contact with an opponent . . .
“Any substitute or team member who leaves the team bench . . .and enters the playing area during a fight or any other serious unsportsmanlike act shall be ejected. . . . This rule applies to both regular season and play-off games. . . .The rule would apply to all OSSAA sponsored activities. Any student involved directly or indirectly for fighting a second time during the season shall be suspended for the remainder of the season.” [Emphasis provided.]”
The plaintiff argued that the association “acted arbitrarily, unreasonably and without authority in applying Rule 4(b) to a playoff game. Brown contends that if any penalty is imposed, it must be done so during the regular season — here, in the first two games of the 2006 season. He insists that the emphasized language above is clearly only applicable to individuals who enter the fray from the sidelines. The association argues that it is reasonable, considering the rule’s language, to apply the two-game suspension penalty in the playoff rounds.”
The court agreed with the association, which “has discretion in construing its rules and determining their applicability. All that is required of the Association is that its rules be reasonable, lawful, in keeping with public policy, and interpreted fairly and reasonably and enforced uniformly and not arbitrarily.”
“(I)t was an abuse of discretion to intrude into the internal affairs of the Association. The Association promulgates rules which may be amended by those schools, who have voluntarily joined its ranks. One of those rules provides for the ejection and suspension of a player from two contests who engages in a ‘fight.’ Brown’s act of ‘kicking’ in the direction of his opponent falls within the definition of fighting within the rule’s language.
“(I)ts application and the discipline imposed are reasonable and there is no evidence that the discipline was entered in anything other than good faith and in conjunction with the rule of law by a referee who was positioned to see the play and who reacted immediately to the player’s action.”
Suzanne Leigh Brown at al. v. Oklahoma Secondary School Activities Association; S.Ct.Okla.; No. 102,816; 12/8/05
Attorneys of Record: (for plaintiff) Terry W. West, Bradley C. West, The West Law Firm, Shawnee, Oklahoma, Randy C. Parsons, John Cloar, Shawnee, Oklahoma. (for defendant) Clyde A. Muchmore, Harvey D. Ellis, Jr., Mark S. Grossman, Crowe & Dunlevy, Oklahoma City, Oklahoma.