Standoff between referees, UIL imperils Texas football playoffs

An ongoing dispute between the Texas Association of Sports Officials -- the group which organizes all the referees for high school sporting events in Texas -- and UIL, the governing body that runs Texas high school sports, could lead to a lockout of more than half of the state's current referees. Given that the state football playoffs are only weeks away, the standoff, which has led to a lawsuit that will be heard in a federal courtroom, could create a scenario in which officials are forced to choose between abandoning locked-out colleagues to ref in a playoff game, or watch replacement refs officiate the games they were scheduled to work.

According to the Texas Tribune, the dispute began in December 2009, when UIL changed longstanding rules in an effort to force all high school officials to register with UIL before they would be allowed to work a high school game. TASO objected to the measure, claiming that it saw it as a gateway to eventual fee collection and unwarranted regulation.

Because of those grievances, the officials' organization filed suit against UIL in early 2010, only to be told that UIL could not be sued as a governing body. TASO's response was to file a second suit against the current UIL directors specifically. According to court documents, TASO alleges that UIL is attempting to "take over, tax, oversee and regulate the occupation of sports officiating in the State of Texas," which it asserts is outside UIL authority and clearly violates the law.

A permanent federal injunction to stop the new UIL protocol from being enacted was to be heard Wednesday in a U.S. District Court in Austin, with the result of the case having a significant impact on forthcoming football, volleyball and cross country tournaments. All of those sports have fall playoff campaigns which begin shortly after the Nov. 1 deadline for officials to register with UIL.

As one might expect, UIL paints a benign picture of its registration drive.

"[It's] a free registration -- nothing more, nothing less," UIL director Tony Timmons told the Tribune. "[The goal is] to be able to communicate directly with the officials for purposes of announcement and rule changes and also to complete a short ‘officials compliance program' to see to it that they have at least working knowledge of the constitution and the contest rules within the UIL."

Meanwhile, Timmons said as many as 7,000 of TASO's 15,000 members have agreed to UIL terms, with schools able to lock out any officials who fail to register per the new guidelines by the policy's November deadline.

UIL defends the new standards as a necessary function to promote better standards among the state's officials. UIL's proposed new procedures would allow the governing body to charge a fee to offset officiating programs, and would also force officials to participate in the UIL medical insurance policy.

TASO executive director Michael Fitch, on the other hand, is concerned that those changes could be a gateway to forcing all officials to leave TASO's oversight for the UIL.

"I would refer to this as creeping regulation," Fitch told the Tribune. "It's free now [but] will not be free in the future. I think it will lead UIL to totally demand that all of our members be UIL members and leave TASO."

All of this imperils an organization that has overseen officials who have advanced on to much greener pastures. As Fitch notes, two former TASO officials worked in the Super Bowl, seven in NFL conference championship games and a whopping 17 have officiated college bowl games in recent seasons.

Whether TASO is able to slow UIL's registration -- and what effect that will have on the forthcoming state playoffs -- remains to be seen. Clearly, the timing could have been less intrusive for the remainder of the fall sports season.

"So if they do have a shortage of [officials], what happens?" Austin-based football referee Alberto Arechiga told the Tribune. "The six-man schools- - are they the first ones that don't have games? Or are 1As the ones that get cut out first because they're smaller? It's just not fair."

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