There is an unwritten rule in sports in the most simplest of terms, states that the outcomes of any competition should be decided on the field or court of play. In this stunningly bizzare twist of fate, the Illinois High School Athletic Association (IHSA) and the athletic administration of North Lawndale Charter High School were unintentional co-conspirators in determining the outcome of this season’s Illinois Class 3A Boy’s Basketball State Championship.
For those in the unknown, the Chicago Tribune high school sports reporter, Bob Sakamoto wrote a nice piece summarizing the facts:
In Friday’s 3A semifinal, North Lawndale began the game trailing 1-0 before the opening tipoff. Illinois High School Association Assistant Executive Director Kurt Gibson ruled that Lawndale’s illegal uniform mandated a technical foul.
Champaign Centennial’s Jeff Johnson made one of two technical free throws. As it turned out, North Lawndale lost by that one point, 66-65.
In tournament basketball, games with teams that are evenly matched, the outcome of the game is often decided by one single possession. You would like to think that the extra possession that resulted in a win for one team and a loss for another team would be earned in the heat of the battle, within the confines of the game itself. It appears in this case that game deciding possession was determined by gamesmanship of the rules prior to the tip off of the semi-final game of the high profile state basketball tournament.
While I’m not questioning the rule itself, what is in question is the inconsistency and randomness of how this particular rule was enforced. Both sides have pointed proverbial finger at each other in casting blame for the situation after the fact. According to the IHSA, the North Lawndale team knew they were in violation of the uniform rule, but were only warned about the infraction until the semi-final game, where the penalty was enforced. The North Lawndale team had to be aware that after several warnings, the IHSA could actually choose to enforce the penalty. It was a showdown that had no winner and no happy ending. Both parties are equally responsible for determining the end result of the crucial state championship semi-final game.
The only other issue that stands out is the extremely poor judgement the IHSA used in the timing of the enforcement of the uniform rule. Last week, in the face of severe public criticism and outrage, the IHSA issued statements defending their decision. While the decision itself may be defensible, the lack of sound judgement used in choosing that particular moment to arbitrarily enforce this rule is indefensible. If the IHSA knew the uniforms were out of compliance with their rule for the entire 2008-09 basketball season, why didn’t they choose to enforce their rule consistently and accurately from tip off of every game until North Lawndale conformed to the rule? If they had taken that approach, there would be no second-guessing of the rule enforcement in the semi-final game.
The IHSA should have acknowledged that they exercised poor judgement in enforcement of the uniform rule, thus inadvertently impacting the outcome of a tournament championship. This action would have disarmed any remaining critics. Instead, the IHSA justification introduces even more opportunity for criticism. Poor decisions are a fact of life, people are human, mistakes are made. Defending a poor decision not only reinforces that decision, but leads me to conclude that the IHSA has yet to learn the lessons from it’s mistakes and now establishes a trend of making poor decisions.