“This lawsuit seeks to have the judiciary rewrite MSHSL bylaws to require the MSHSL to allow students, parents, and/or coaches to challenge, in court, the on-the-field discretionary decisions of contest officials.”
— Minnesota State High School League
“Even if S.B. could show a constitutionally protected property interest, he was afforded adequate process based on the demands of the situation.”
— Judge Ann D. Montgomery
It’s an age-old tradition in sports. Your team doesn’t do well. They lose the big game. You don’t want to blame your favorite players for performing badly, so instead you turn on the arbiters of the game — the umpires, referees, and other officials who made the calls that you think cost your team dearly. And then, when the game is over, you head on down to the local courthouse and file a lawsuit.
All sounds familiar doesn’t it? Well … okay — all but the last part. But in recent years there has been a rise in lawsuits filed by fans, ticket holders, and sometimes even the players themselves, seeking legal redress against what they viewed as a bad call by a sports official.
Back in 2018, the New Orleans Saints felt like they were on the short end of a bad call by an NFL official that cost them the NFC Championship Game against the Los Angeles Rams, and as an extension of that, a trip to the Super Bowl to try to get Drew Brees another championship ring. A blatant pass interference penalty went unflagged and allowed the Rams to get the ball back, tie the game, and win in overtime.
Following the game, the NFL admitted that the play should have been flagged and even changed replay rules to make plays of that nature subject to instant replay. But one fan wanted more — he wanted a do-over for his Saints, and he sued the league claiming fraud and conspiracy. The case was eventually dismissed, and the dismissal was upheld by the Louisiana Supreme Court right about the time the following NFL season was ready to start.
Now, a high school football player in Minnesota has sued the Minnesota State High School League over penalties that cost him an appearance in a state championship game. The player, identified as “S.B.” in the lawsuit, because he is a minor, is the star quarterback for the Chatfield Gophers. In the state semifinal game, he was flagged twice for unsportsmanlike conduct, the second time for kicking an opposing player who was on the ground. The QB claimed that he was merely trying to get his leg free following a tackle, but the referee thought it was an egregious foul.
Under Minnesota high school football rules, a player who gets two unsportsmanlike penalties in the same game is ejected from that game and automatically suspended for the next, which in this case was the state championship game. The player’s parents sued the state athletic league.
The lawsuit wasn’t as straightforward as a claim that the penalty was in error. Rather, lawyers for the family claimed that playing football was a protected “property right.” If it was, as they claimed, then that right could not taken away without “due process” — an opportunity to be heard. In this situation, that would be an appeal of some sort. But the Minnesota rules make this suspension automatic without any appeal.
The state high school athletic league responded that such a claim was nonsense. They said the lawsuit “seeks to have the judiciary rewrite MSHSL bylaws to require the MSHSL to allow students, parents, and/or coaches to challenge, in court, the on-the-field discretionary decisions of contest officials,” and that there was no “constitutionally protected property or liberty interest in participating in an extracurricular varsity competition.”
The court, ruling in an incredibly expedited manner (it was a request for an emergency injunction), and before the following week’s game, sided with the league. The judge said in her ruling that “S.B.’s ejection and one-game suspension still allows him to remain on the football team, engage in school activities, and participate in all interscholastic athletics except the next scheduled game in the tournament series. Even if S.B. could show a constitutionally protected property interest, he was afforded adequate process based on the demands of the situation.” As such, she denied the request for an injunction, and the game went on without S.B. in uniform.
In the end, it mattered an awful lot to S.B., but not so much to Chatfield. They had rallied behind their backup QB the week before to win the semifinal game after S.B. was ejected. And in the final, playing without S.B., Chatfield’s defense forced five turnovers, one of which was returned for a touchdown, and they beat West Central Area/Ashby High School 14-13 to win their fifth state title.
S.B. is only a junior, so he’ll likely be back at quarterback for Chatfield in the fall of ’22. Let’s hope he gets his wins on the gridiron and not on the court docket.
David Hejmanowski is judge of the Probate/Juvenile Division of the Delaware County Court of Common Pleas, where he has served as magistrate, court administrator, and now judge, since 2003. He has written a weekly column on law and history for The Gazette since 2005.