InterMat Wrestling – Judge not? Ref’s calls reversed by legal review stir discussion

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Hayden Halter was initially suspended before a judge overruled the referee and WIAA (Photo/Amber Arnold, The Journal Times)

It’s never been easy to be a wrestling referee, having every mat call questioned by hundreds of fans in the stands in a high school gym.

Now, thanks to the internet and social media, folks hundreds of miles away think they can judge a referees’ decisions. (Just ask the mat official in the New Jersey dreadlock/haircut case … or the Pennsylvania dual meet where a referee penalized two wrestlers from one high school team for dropping the straps of their singlets at the end of the event which reversed the outcome of the final team score.)

Then there’s what happened in Wisconsin earlier this month, when a defending state champ (Hayden Halter) was penalized twice in the last match at a conference championship, resulting in a one-match suspension that would have denied him the opportunity to continue on his title quest. A judge overruled the referee and the Wisconsin Interscholastic Athletic Association, and, as of this writing, the wrestler will be competing at state next weekend.

Now some within the amateur wrestling community fear the precedent established by the Wisconsin judge’s decision might be the wrong move … and could ultimately penalize the sport and its participants.

Opinions from Wisconsin

Individuals within the athletic community within the state of Wisconsin are already weighing on the judge’s decision.

“At this point in time, all we can say is that our client (the WIAA) is weighing its alternative courses of action … an appeal is one option,” said WIAA attorney Brent Jacobson last week. “If that option were pursued, given the stage of the proceeding at this time, I cannot say when that would occur.”

Barry Mano, the president of the National Association of Sports Officials and owner/publisher of Referee Magazine, wrote a commentary titled “Calling a foul on the bench” for the Racine Journal-Times, hometown newspaper for the court where the judge ruled in favor of the wrestler and against the WIAA.

“Often over the years, when asked to provide a perspective about sports officiating, I would make an analogy between what we do and what judges in court do,” Mano wrote. “We each learn the rules, enforce them and do so in an impartial manner. This impartiality is an attribute we demand and greatly rely upon. I have immense respect for the men and women who serve as judges. It is because of them primarily that we live in relative comfort and safety under the rule of law. Without them, the laws are just ink on paper. Without sports officials, the rules of the game are just ink on paper …”

As the Racine paper pointed out in a separate news story about the situation, the WIAA doesn’t allow its referees to use video reviews in any sport in any situation, citing rules from the National Federation of State High School Associations (NFHS). The judge viewed video recorded by the wrestler’s mother, who was sitting in the stands.

“In effect,” Mano wrote, “Judge Piontek became the replay official, where replay is not permitted, and chose to override the decision of the official on the mat.”

“Judge Piontek played armchair referee and the consequences, if left unchecked and unchallenged, will bring uncertainty and loss of belief in the outcomes of high school contests,” Mano continued.

“Imagine how many aggrieved parents/fans will now consider using the court system to challenge a referee’s judgment call,” Mano concluded. “What will be coming our way will be this: often quite ordinary and mundane calls by sports officials will be subject to litigation brought by upset fans/parents.”

One possible product of situations like this: According to a letter issued by the WIAA on Jan. 10 (nearly a month before this incident), parents who engage in “verbally criticizing game officials or coaches … (are) the primary reason Wisconsin has an alarming shortage of high school officials.”

The letter went on to state that 80 percent of officials quit after two years, much shorter than what had been the norm.

Officials outside Wisconsin weigh in

What happened in Wisconsin could have implications well beyond that state’s borders. InterMat interviewed some wrestling officials outside America’s Dairyland to get their take.

Carl Koenig, president of the Upstate New York Chapter of the National Wrestling Hall of Fame who officiated high school and collegiate events from 1970-2012, said, “The Wisconsin situation is very interesting. We had one in New York state many years ago. The judge threw the case out, saying that the courts were not the instrument that should be used and high school sports needed to recognize that the official’s decision was final in all sports.”

Koenig then told InterMat, “I feel the referee (in Wisconsin) could have handled it better. That said, I strongly believe a ref’s decision should be upheld in any case.”

“In my officiating, I’ve had cases where another official has seen things completely differently that I had. We’re human beings. Errors can be made.”

“Any time you penalize a kid, somebody’s not going to be happy,’ said Jeff Sitler, Ohio mat official with nearly a quarter-century of experience, including 18 years in the Buckeye State. “Officials watch with their eyes and their brains; coaches and parents watch with their eyes and hearts.”

“Parents are going to do what they think is right for their kid, even if they’re wrong.”

“Wrestling is all about control. Control your opponent. Control your emotions.”

Sitler, who is a major force behind the Wrestle Against Autism tournament/fundraiser held each spring in the Columbus area, offered specific advice to the Wisconsin Intercollegiate Athletic Association.

“The high school organization needs to take a hard stance,” Sitler told InterMat. “But do they have the money and other resources to fight it?”

Dr. Bill Welker offered his perspective as a former wrestler and coach who served on the NFHS National Rules Committee member from 2012-15, and state rules interpreter in West Virginia for three decades.

“In West Virginia, a disqualified wrestler would have to sit out the next two weigh-ins,” said Welker, who is author of a regular column in Wrestling USA magazine and a 2017 memoir, “The Sparrow’s Spirit: A Champion Wrestler’s Lifetime Reflections on Prayer and Perseverance.”

“Unfortunately, judges can override such actions. Sadly, they often are political decisions to appease citizens in their jurisdictions.”

All that said, Ohio’s Jeff Sitler offered a possible alternative to having the courts making decisions that impact the outcoming of wrestling matches.

“Perhaps there should be a review board — a board of wrestling officials from outside the immediate area, not local officials — who could review specific incidents,” Sitler told InterMat. “That way, people who know wrestling and its rules would be the ones making the decision.

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