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Fifteen years after the New York Court of Appeals’ then-Chief Judge Sol Wachtler bemoaned the “greed, commercialism and zealotry that threatens to vulgarize sports,” judges are still being called on to referee athletic disputes — as evidenced by a case last week in Albany. In Matter of Frank C. Rodriguez v. New York State Public High School Athletic Association, 2772-05, Supreme Court Justice Thomas J. Spargo declined to enter the fray. “To establish a precedent of reviewing and potentially reversing a referee’s judgment call from the distant ivory tower of a judge’s chambers would cause unending confusion in the interscholastic athletic system,” the judge wrote. The dispute centers on a championship wrestling match in Albany. On March 5, Frank C. Rodriguez and Paul Florio were competing for the state title in the 135-pound division. At the end of the match, Rodriguez, then in 12th grade, was ahead by a score of 7-6. In celebration, he threw his headgear into the air before the official handshake signaled the end of the match. After declaring Rodriguez the champion and having the combatants shake hands, the referee learned from an assistant referee that the headgear had been thrown and that the athlete had to be punished for unsportsmanlike conduct. The referee assessed Rodriguez a two-point penalty and declared Florio the victor. Rodriguez appealed to the protest committee to no avail, so he took his gripe to court in the form of an Article 78 petition. Spargo, however, refused to second-guess the referee. He observed that the rules on unsportsmanlike conduct prohibit the throwing of equipment, making no distinction between acts of jubilation, as was apparently the case here, and acts of insolence or disrespect. Accordingly, the court found, the protest committee acted rationally. Rodriguez and the North Rockland Central School District then asked Spargo to declare both young men champions. Again, the judge refused to intercede. “Strangely, petitioners ask the court to declare ‘that both athletes are champions,’” he wrote. “To do so would be an abuse of judicial discretion. This court could no more declare Rodriguez and Florio to be co-champions than it could to declare any other defeated finalist a co-champion.” John J. Henry and Sarah K. Delaney of Whiteman Osterman & Hanna in Albany represented Rodriguez. Sheri L. Moreno of Nixon Peabody in Albany appeared for the High School Athletic Association, the State Wrestling Protest Committee and Florio. Henry said it is unclear if there will be an appeal. “New York law does recognize a right to challenge the decisions of a governing body in an athletic setting,” he said. “Unfortunately for us in this case the judge didn’t agree there was enough to set aside the judgment call that was made.” Moreno said the decision should stand. “Hopefully, this will be the end of it and the student named champion can go on without having to be concerned about this any further,” Moreno said. “The courts cannot be acting as referees.” Several judges from the top of the judicial system to the trial courts have expressed sentiments ranging from disappointment to disgust when competitors turn to the courts to resolve disputes perhaps better left in the athletic arena. In 1990, for instance, the Court of Appeals was called on to determine who won the America’s Cup yacht race (see Mercury Bay Boating Club Inc. v. San Diego Yacht Club, 76 NY2d 256), when the U.S. squad seized on a loophole in the charter and entered an inherently faster catamaran. The court held that the American racers had acted within the rules of the contest. Wachtler wrote a pointed concurrence, observing that few if any cases in the court’s illustrious history attracted such international attention, despite the fact that its legal significance was essentially nil. “Ultimately … it must be the contestants, not the courts, who define the traditions and ideals of the sport,” he wrote in Mercury Bay. “[I]f the traditions and ideals of the sport are dependent on judicial coercion, that battle is already lost.”

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