The drama of the gridiron has found its way into a federal courtroom in a standoff between the Texas Association of Sport Officials and the University Interscholastic League. With the threat of a lockout of referees and their ilk, the result could be the hiring of scabs to replace them — or even the halting of games — just weeks before one of the year's most eagerly anticipated moments in Texas: the start of high school football playoffs.

TASO, as it's known, first filed suit against the UIL last December after the latter amended its rules to require that all high school sports officials register before they're allowed to officiate games. TASO alleges that the requirement smacks of a “government takeover of a very successful private enterprise.” UIL director Tony Timmons counters that it’s “a free registration — nothing more, nothing less.” The end goal, Timmons says, 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.”

The suit was dismissed after a judge ruled that the UIL, an entity founded 101 years ago under the aegis of the University of Texas to “provide leadership and guidance to public school debate and athletic teachers,” could not be sued institutionally; it was refiled naming UIL directors as the defendants and has now landed in federal court. A hearing on TASO’s request for a permanent injunction to halt the policy from taking effect is scheduled for today in U.S. District Judge Lee Yeakel’s courtroom. Referees and other sports officials have until Nov. 1 to register with the UIL. A stalemate would affect all sports, including volleyball, whose playoff season is also approaching.

Court documents filed by TASO allege that the UIL is attempting to “take over, tax, oversee and regulate the occupation of sports officiating in the State of Texas” outside of its authority and in violation of the law. TASO's executive director, Michael Fitch, says he isn't sure how many of the organization's 15,000 members have already agreed to the UIL's terms, though Timmons estimates it's about 7,000. Fitch says that if the remaining unregistered TASO members aren’t on the field after the UIL’s November registration deadline, it won't be because they don’t want to be. He contends that the standoff could produce a lockout by individual schools that might seek to enforce the UIL’s registration mandate.

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“You will never hear the word ‘strike’ come out of this office,” he says. “If an individual chooses not to register and if a school chooses to not fulfill the obligation [to hire the referee] that they’ve made, that’s out of our hands.”

"Creeping regulation"

Timmons declines to address some of the allegations in TASO's court filings — specifically, that he has previously said there would be “drastic changes” to officiating and that the UIL has strong-armed officials to register or risk losing their assignments. The UIL arrived at the new policy collectively, he says. “[The] council has effectuated the policy, they voted on the policy, and that’s all we’re doing.”

Fitch worries that registration is a first step toward consolidating power over a system of freelancers that works just fine now. “I would refer to this as creeping regulation. 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,” he says.

The filings also allege that the UIL can impose a fee on officials to offset costs for programs and would also require members to participate in the UIL’s medical insurance program. That would “allow the UIL to act as their advocacy group; and then give the UIL the unfettered right to charge sports officials an unlimited amount in fees to offset the costs of programs and services that the UIL in its sole discretion intends to provide,” the lawsuit charges.

Timmons says the rule changes could fix problems with the current arrangement but declined to identify which problems need fixing.

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Matthew Jones, an attorney with the Hance Scarborough firm who represents TASO (and officiates games himself), argues the UIL is meddling unnecessarily in an arrangement that works.

“TASO is the most successful high school officials organization in the country under any measure,” he wrote in an e-mail, explaining the position of the Austin TASO football board. He noted that two former TASO referees officiated in the Super Bowl, seven in the NFL conference championship games, one in the NFL Pro Bowl and 17 in collegiate bowl games. “No other high school officials organization in the country can claim anywhere near that level of success,” he wrote. Under the UIL, we will be subject to the rules imposed by people who are not in anyway accountable to officials.”

"Like canceling Christmas"

Alberto Arechiga, a veteran referee who lives in Austin, says that, ultimately, it's student athletes who could suffer the bulk of any consequences from the dispute, either through game cancellations or botched calls by poorly trained replacement officials. “So if they do have a shortage of [officials], what happens?” he asks. “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.”

For small towns in Texas, Arechiga says, calling off games would be “like canceling Christmas.”

Others with a vested interest don’t see why the dispute can’t be resolved. “We support the University Interscholastic League,” says Sue Cannon, the athletic director at Trinity High School in Euless, whose football team has won the state’s 5A championship three times in the previous five years and is currently ranked No. 1 nationally in four of five high school football polls. “I have friends who officiate, and I can understand why change is difficult. But in the long run, to be consistent with payment and with fees charged, and to be more consistent with more points of emphasis by the UIL on rules interpretation, I think [change] is a good thing.”

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