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Lawmakers Could Settle Dispute Between Referees and UIL

State lawmakers may do what the judicial system so far hasn't: settle a dispute between the University Interscholastic League and the Texas Association of Sport Officials over which organization controls the officiating at school sports events.

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State lawmakers may have the final say in a dispute between sports officials and the University Interscholastic League that led to fears of a referee lockout before the 2010 high school football playoff season.

In December 2009 the Texas Association of Sport Officials (TASO), a private group whose members referee public school sports activities, filed suit in state district court against the University Interscholastic League after the UIL decided to require association members to register with the state agency before they are allowed to officiate. TASO officials argue their organization is one of the most successful in the country, and boasts former members who have gone on to officiate collegiate bowl games, Super Bowls and NFL conference championships. The sports officials association argues that the registration requirement is a government takeover that would weaken the organization.

Tony Timmons, the UIL’s assistant athletic director, said today the agency could not comment on matters pending before the courts or the legislature. But when the suit was filed, Timmons said that the purpose of registration was “to be able to communicate directly with the officials for purposes of announcement and rule changes.”

The association’s position is now backed by state Rep. Randy Weber, R-Pearland, who filed legislation that would prevent the UIL from registering, attempting to register or charging fees to sports officials as a precondition for contracting with schools to officiate athletic contests. The bill, HB 3028, also prevents the UIL from influencing a school district to choose one official over another, and prevents it from setting rates or fee schedules for officials.

“As I understand it, UIL was basically wanting to take over TASO, which has been around 30 or 40 years,” Weber said of his legislation. “When you’re talking about making judgment calls — sports calls — I think having an independent agency is the best.”

Matthew Jones, an attorney with the Hance Scarborough firm, which represents TASO, and a high school sports official himself, said Weber’s bill would do what seven judges have been unable to since the fight started: determine what the UIL can and cannot ask sports officials to do. After the case was transferred to a federal court, a federal district judge in November granted an injunction against the UIL after the agency gave association members a Dec. 1 deadline to register or face being locked out.

Since then the case has been remanded back to a state court. Last month, District Judge Rhonda Hurley granted a temporary restraining order that again halted the mandatory registration, citing in her decision that “imminent and irreparable injury will be inflicted upon TASO” if the order was not granted. The UIL was also denied its challenge to the court’s authority to hear the case. Jones said that was an attempt to try to have the cased dismissed altogether. The UIL is appealing that ruling. The next step, Jones said, is to ask the appellate court to grant an injunction to prevent the UIL from forcing association members to register during the appeals process. The current restraining order expires Thursday.

But the UIL has its own options in the state legislature. HB 3694 by state Rep. Pete Gallego, D-Alpine, would let the UIL refuse to certify an official or “suspend or revoke the certification of any sports official” if the official has been convicted of felonies or certain misdemeanors. In essence, it would require background checks for officials, which Jones said “would give the UIL the authority to register officials.”

Gallego said he knows little about the dispute and was not approached by the UIL. Instead, he said, he filed the legislation after learning the state agency has no authority or say over which officials are allowed on school campuses.

“I realized after talking to some of the members that everybody that works around kids in a school can have a background check but the only people that were exempted from that requirement were sports officials,” he said. Gallego has also heard of certain referees bringing alcohol on campuses and other acts unbecoming of sports officials, he said.

Gallego acknowledges he inadvertently weighed in on a fight he has no interest in. But he doesn’t agree with TASO’s assertion that requiring its members to register with the UIL would dissolve the group.

“It may change their organization but it wouldn’t end their organization,” he said. “I don’t have a vested interest one way or another but it seems to me that the way that I wanted to do it in my bill is a reasonable approach, but it’s clearly a controversial approach.”

Weber said he was unaware of any allegations of wrongdoing and agreed officials should act in a manner that sits well with the students, coaches and parents. That said, he still believes TASO should continue to function as a stand-alone unit.

“I want an independent judging agency, something that’s out underneath the umbrella of the UIL,” he said. “I don’t want the fox guarding the henhouse, so to speak.”

Neither bill has been passed out of the House Public Education committee, and the deadline for that to happen is next week. If the bills stall, the courts will ultimately decide the dispute. But Weber, a committee member, said he’s spoken with fellow lawmakers about sending his bill to the House Calendars Committee, which sets the agenda for the House floor. The same could happen with Gallego’s bill, which Jones said may put the matter to rest once and for all.

“If [the legislature] gives them [the UIL] the authority then we probably don’t have much of a lawsuit and if the legislature specifically denies them the authority then I think they may drop their efforts,” he said.

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