Wrestling with Referees: Halter v. Wisconsin Interscholastic Athletic Association

Aug 30, 2019

By John T. Wendt, J.D., M.A.
Referees, especially in high school and youth sports, have always been easy targets for parents and fans. Most do it for the love of the game (not for the money or power because there basically is none). And there is a crisis looming as more officials are retiring and leaving rather than coming into the game. Now there is an additional pressure — instant review by parents’ cellphone video.
While it is rare for a court to step in and overturn a referee’s judgment call, more student-athletes are asking for judicial relief. Last year a New York State Supreme Court judge in Rochester ruled to overturn the referee’s decision to disqualify a basketball player for a flagrant foul reinstating the suspended player in the next game.[1]
This year in Wisconsin, there was a similar situation, but in wrestling. Going into the 2019-20 season, Hayden Halter will be a junior in high school, but he is already one of the more controversial individuals in interscholastic athletics. A very talented wrestler, he is a two-time Wisconsin Interscholastic Athletic Association state champion.
Hayden Halter
As a freshman competing for Burlington High School, Halter was in an emotion-filled match against rival Holmen High School. The Burlington coaches warned their athletes not to celebrate too much because it might trigger an unsportsmanlike penalty. Immediately after winning his match, Halter “flexed his muscles in celebration toward the Holmen crowd,” whereupon the referee immediately deducted a point from Burlington, most likely costing it the contest.[2] The referee also went to the Burlington bench and warned the team about excessive celebration. Burlington coach Jade Gribble said, “Emotions got high, and he (Halter) got excited. I think he was frustrated… I think a lot of times we try to take the fun out of sports and we can’t have any emotion, but the referee said he aimed it at Holmen, and it wasn’t even the crowd, but at the other guys.”[3] Later that year Halter went on to win the Wisconsin state championship at 106 pounds[4] with a 49-2 record.[5]
Those emotions and unsportsmanlike penalties flared up again in Halter’s sophomore year. After transferring to Waterford (Wisconsin) High School, Halter won the 120-pound conference championship match (7 -2), but referee Michael Arendt issued two unsportsmanlike penalties in the closing minutes of the match. The first penalty was for profanity and questioning a call by the referee. The second, and more controversial penalty, was for flexing his muscles again, this time as a taunt toward fans from his former school, Burlington.[6] Halter claimed that the flex was toward his father. Halter’s coach appealed the decision, but Arendt, after conferring with the other referees upheld the decision. Under WIAA rules unsportsmanlike penalties are judgment calls and can not be appealed after the event.[7]
With a second unsportsmanlike conduct penalty, Halter was suspended for the next event which was the state sectional meet, and he would lose the chance to compete at the state championship tournament. Halter said, “(The officials) said I was flexing toward the crowd and taunting them, but I was flexing at my dad because I just won the match and I was excited…To have the ref take this opportunity to go to state away from me; it’s personal.”[8]
Halter’s parents sued the Wisconsin Interscholastic Athletic Association and Circuit Judge Michael Piontek issued a temporary restraining order that permitted Halter to wrestle at the sectional championships and ultimately the state championships. (Halter went on win the state championship at 120 pounds and finish the season with a record of 41-6.) At the temporary restraining order hearing Hayden’s father was asked if he believed that “the officials should be subject to being second-guessed by parents of the competitors?” and his answer was “No.” Yet, a video of the match shot by Hayden’s mother Brynn Halter was a key piece of evidence used by the judge and an integral part of his decision. And the WIAA attorney pointed out that “what really is at issue here is not second-guessing the game official. Otherwise, Your Honor, we might as well open up the courthouse doors every time that someone disagrees with an official, because that is likely what’s going to happen with the WIAA.”[9]
Judge Piontek noted that “the court is not substituting its judgment for that of the official”[10] but noted in the hearing transcript that he (Piontek) personally viewed the Halter video and personally disagreed with the referee’s decision. Piontek said, “In other words, I saw and heard, it had sound, what occurred. And I understand the burden the WIAA faces in not wanting to have to second-guess and set up redundant systems and other systems, second systems and deal with error. I mean, that’s part of the game, in a way, is what we’ve been taught. So I look at that and I say factually I don’t see anything that Shawn Halter [sic Hayden] did wrong, but because we don’t want a Monday morning quarterback, you’re just going to get screwed and you’re going to go home and watch the wrestling on TV or delayed TV, or whatever it is, because I imagine with him suspended he can’t go to the match even to watch. And I saw for, I would estimate, less than a second the arm goes up like, you know, whoopee or yahoo, I won, you know, so a sign of excitement. Basically he walks around him and picks up his hand and put it up in the air, and he throws an arm up in celebration and that’s the end of it.”[11] You can judge for yourself whether it is a “whoopee” or flexing and taunting that Halter had been penalized for the previous year.[12]
The WIAA and the National Association of Sports Officials (NASO) are funding an appeal. Barry Mano, founder and president of NASO said, “This is a case where we would see a total knockdown of the authority of the official, who we actually think did the right thing during the match…We look at that video and see that the young man did in fact violate the rules. But regardless, this can’t stand for courts to get involved just because someone says they have a video that shows what they want it to show.”[13]
A recent NASO survey noted that referees are leaving in record numbers.[14] Many individuals became referees to give something back to the community and the game. With instant replay and review, VAR, expectations of perfection and now threats of going to court it is no wonder that there is a shortage of officials. Cases such as Halter’s may cause others to leave or stay away.
Wendt is a Professor Emeritus, Ethics and Business Law, at the University of St. Thomas.
[1] Justin Carter, County Supreme Court Judge overturns Section V referee call, WHAM (2018), http://13wham.com/news/local/county-supreme-court-judge-overturns-section-v-referee-call (last visited Aug 16, 2019).
[2] Mike Ramczyk, STATE WRESTLING: Controversial call bites Burlington, historic run ends, myracinecounty (2018), http://myracinecounty.com/?p=28777 (last visited Aug 14, 2019).
[3] Id.
[4] Mike Ramczyk, Burlington wrestling out to prove they’re the best in Wisconsin, myracinecounty (2018), http://myracinecounty.com/?p=28764 (last visited Aug 15, 2019).
[5] Wisconsin Interscholastic Athletic Association, WIAA Individual State Champions – 1904 – 2019, WIAA Individual State Champions – 1904 – 2019 (2019), https://www.wiaawi.org/Portals/0/PDF/Results/Wrestling/State%20Records/individualchamps.pdf.
[6] Adam Rogan, Judge overrules WIAA, Halter gets to wrestle, Journal Times (2019), https://journaltimes.com/sports/high-school/judge-overrules-wiaa-halter-gets-to-wrestle/article_a2ba5501-a083-5152-9c0e-7b3039f41608.html (last visited Aug 16, 2019).
[7] Id.
[8] Andy Berg, Parents Lawyer Up After Controversial Wrestling Call, https://www.athleticbusiness.com/law-policy/parents-lawyer-up-after-controversial-wrestling-call.html (last visited Aug 15, 2019). (Video of the match can be see here)
[9] Hayden Halter v. Wisconsin Interscholastic Athletic Association, Injunction Hearing, (2019).
[10] J. R. Radcliffe, Wisconsin wrestler used as example in article highlighting how technology has complicated the jobs of youth sports officials, Milwaukee Journal Sentinel (2019), https://www.jsonline.com/story/sports/2019/06/19/wisconsin-example-used-espn-com-article-ref-shortage/1498508001/ (last visited Aug 15, 2019).
[11] Hayden Halter v. Wisconsin Interscholastic Athletic Association, Injunction Hearing, supra note 10.
[12] The Journal Times, Hayden Halter disqualified (2019). Video available at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=iw0wH6IFQTQ
[13] Kevin Seifert, “$60 to get yelled at”: Why officiating is nearing a breaking point, ESPN.com (2019), https://www.espn.com/espn/story/_/id/27000520 (last visited Aug 16, 2019).
[14] National Association of Sports Officials, NASO National Officiating Survey, NASO National Officiating Survey (2019), https://www.naso.org/survey/ (last visited Aug 16, 2019).


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