Thomas More High School appeals, gets team back on basketball court

St. Thomas More High School in Milwaukee went to court on Wednesday, March 9 – fighting to get its team back on the basketball court – and the school is getting that chance, getting a rematch in the state boys' basketball tournament. 

Milwaukee County Judge Hannah Dugan sided with Thomas More basketball players and granted a temporary restraining order to stop the Wisconsin Interscholastic Athletic Association from moving forward with the impacted bracket.

"There is irreparable harm," the judge ruled from the bench.

That means Thomas More will be allowed into the state basketball tournament after all.

"It's a surreal feeling right now and I’m just happy for our guys," John Hoch, St. Thomas More president and basketball coach said after the victory in court. "I’m just really happy for our players right now, especially our four seniors."

What led to this court case

With 44 seconds left in Friday's regional playoff game between two Milwaukee schools, Thomas More was beating Fuller Collegiate Academy, 82-52. But then it appeared a Thomas More and Fuller player traded pushes – and then players rushed on to the court, followed by members of the crowd.

"I went frame through frame of every video that we saw, and not one of the Thomas More players threw a punch," Hoch said. 

After the fight last Friday, March 4, Thomas More's players were suspended for the next game, the Saturday night playoff game against Brown Deer. The WIAA said Thomas More could have used their junior varsity squad, but chose not to do so. Brown Deer advanced when Thomas More forfeited Saturday.

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"I can’t think of what our players should have done differently, knowing what was happening," said Hoch. "In my mind, what we did was protect ourselves and get ourselves out of a very bad situation."

The lead official's game report said: "With both benches being cleared, all players would have been given a flagrant technical foul for fighting."

In court, lawyers debated the rule that says coaches and players cannot leave the bench during an altercation. Those who do receive that flagrant foul with the ensuing suspension for at least the next game.

John Hoch

The National Association of Sports Officials, based in Racine, defends the referees. 

"It was so overwhelming the number of people who got involved, and kept coming, I even think you had a couple mothers out there trying to get their kids out of the way – and all of this is going on, and you’re one of three people standing there," said Barry Mano of the National Association of Sports Officials. "And things are not good. What would we expect this crew to do? Try to sort out who did what to whom? I mean, really?"

Barry Mano

Thomas More took the WIAA to court for suspending all of their varsity players. 

"Five of our players were actually on the court playing. So I don’t know how you could leave the bench to go on to the court. We had one player that was home sick, and he was ejected," Hoch said.

The WIAA says the school could have rectified that last issue and the formerly sick student would have been eligible to play in the Saturday game against Brown Deer.

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"Going and trying to get the courts to intercede in these types of decisions by referees is something that is going to be going to a very bad place if this starts to happen. When people are unhappy with what a referee does, it could just be a normal judgment call," Mano said.

The WIAA said in its legal brief, "Courts are no place for reviewing the game-time calls of sports officials" – and their rules agreed upon by all teams do not allow appeals during tournaments.

In a statement after the ruling, the organization wrote,"The WIAA staff is working with all teams involved to adjust the schedule accordingly per the judge's ruling. As difficult as this situation is for everyone with inherent interest in the outcome, the WIAA has the responsibility to uphold the integrity of the rules of education-based athletics as established by the member schools."

Now, the WIAA schedules the game that Thomas More originally forfeited. The judge ordered the rest of the games impacted by that matchup to be put on hold – including the game that was supposed to be played Wednesday night – Brown Deer versus Dominican.

The judge's ruling came just two hours before tip off. Some fans still went to that sectional game only to discover it had been canceled in court.

"It’s March Madness and I guess this is madness," said Dominican fan Cedric Mays. "I think the kids they were ready to go and mentally I’m sure they were geared up. Who knows now what can happen with the delay?"

"I wouldn’t say if it’s fair or not fair," said Brown Deer fan Tyrone Rhone. "I think being a coach myself I think if the shoe was on the other foot, I’d want them to hear out my appeal as well, so I understand" 

Now, Brown Deer moves back a round to face St. Thomas More with the forfeited game now going to a rematch.

That game is set for Thursday night, March 10 at 7.

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