Two Young Men, One In A Red Singlet, One In A Blue Singlet, Wrestling In The Center Of An Arena Lit With Floodlights

March 18, 2024 – The Wisconsin Interscholastic Athletic Association arbitrarily applied its own rules by disqualifying a high school wrestler from competing in a regional meet after receiving two unsportsmanlike conduct calls at the prior meet, the Wisconsin Court of Appeals (District II) has held (2-1) in Halter v. Wisconsin Interscholastic Athletic Association, 2021AP525 (Feb. 28, 2024).

Judge Maria Lazar wrote the majority opinion, joined by Judge Mark Gundrum. Presiding Judge Lisa Neubauer dissented.

Unsportsmanlike Conduct

On Feb. 2, 2019, Waterford Union High School sophomore Hayden Halter won the Southern Lakes Conference boys’ varsity wrestling championship in the 120-pound class. During the championship match, the referee gave Halter two unsportsmanlike conduct calls.

Jeff M. Brown
Jeff M. Brown , Willamette Univ. School of Law 1997, is a legal writer for the State Bar of Wisconsin, Madison. He can be reached by
email or by phone at (608) 250-6126.

Under the rules of the Wisconsin Interscholastic Athletic Association (WIAA), any athlete who receives two unsportsmanlike conduct calls in a single meet is suspended for the “next competitive event.”

By winning the conference title, Halter qualified for a WIAA Division 1 varsity regional meet on Feb. 9, 2019, but was facing the suspension.

Halter had wrestled at the varsity level for every meet in his high school career up to that point but registered for the Badger Invitational, a junior varsity/varsity reserve meet that took place several days before the regional varsity meet.

Halter sat out the Badger Invitational as a way of serving his suspension.

The WIAA told the Waterford Union athletic director that it regarded Halter’s entry into the Badger Invitational event as an attempt to “circumvent” the rules on serving his suspension.

Lawsuit Follows

On Feb. 7, 2019, Halter and his father Shawn Halter sued the WIAA in Racine County Circuit Court.

On the same day, the Halters filed a notice of appeal on the WIAA Board of Control, pursuant to the WIAA’s rules of eligibility.

WIAA denied the Halters’ appeal and said there was no appeal to the WIAA board available to the Halters.

The Halters then sought a temporary restraining order (TRO) that allowed Halter to wrestle in the regional meet. The circuit court granted the TRO.

Halter won the regional competition and went on to win the 120-pound class championship at the state tournament in Madison.

Court Finds for WIAA

In May 2021, the circuit court ruled for the WIAA. That decision nullified Halter’s state championship and all his results from the regional competition through the state tournament. The Halters appealed.

WIAA Is State Actor

On appeal, the Halters argued that the WIAA acted in an unreasonable and arbitrary fashion by deciding that Halter’s sitting out the Badger Invitational meet didn’t count as a suspension for the “next competitive event” after the conference tournament.

Judge Lazar began her opinion for the majority by concluding that the WIAA’s eligibility rules were subject to judicial review because the WIAA was a state actor.

Lazar explained that the U.S. Supreme Court held that the Tennessee Secondary School Athletic Association (TSSAA), whose members included 290 public schools and 55 private schools, was a state actor even though it described itself as a voluntary association.

Judge Lazar pointed out that the Supreme Court based its decision on the fact that the TSSAA was “the only game in town” and 84% of its members were public schools.

“These elements are also true of WIAA,” Lazar wrote. She noted that:

  • WIAA is a single-state association with about 80% public school members;

  • Nine of the eleven WIAA board members represent public schools; and

  • the state Department of Public Instruction appoints a liaison to the board.

“For all practical purposes, Wisconsin public high schools have out-sourced athletic programming and competitions to WIAA by making that association’s rules and programs their own,” Judge Lazar wrote.

Rules Cannot Be Arbitrary

Lazar acknowledged that voluntary associations are generally free to set guidelines without judicial interference.

However, Judge Lazar explained that under persuasive authority from the U.S. Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals, a voluntary high school athletic association may not arbitrarily make or enforce its rules.

“This is especially true when a challenge is brought by a student rather than a member school of the voluntary association,” Lazar wrote. “Unlike member schools … a student like Halter has ‘no voice in [the association’s] rules or leadership.”

‘Will Not Judgment’

Judge Lazar pointed out that the term “next competitive event” is undefined in the WIAA rules.

She also concluded that nothing in the WIAA rules for eligibility supported the WIAA’s interpretation that “next competitive event” referred to the next event at the same level as the event at which the unsportsmanlike conduct calls were made.

Lazar pointed out that after Halter sat out the Badger Invitational, the WIAA added wording to the relevant rule specifying that a suspension must be “served at the same level of competition as the disqualification.”

That change, Judge Lazar reasoned, was evidence the WIAA believed its rules needed clarification. She also pointed out that the WIAA admitted that Halter was eligible to wrestle in the Badger Invitational.

She concluded that the WIAA’s decision that Hatler was ineligible to wrestle in the regional “was one of its will, not its judgment.”

“WIAA wanted to see Halter deemed ineligible for regionals, and it continues to assert that it was ‘only fair’ for Halter to miss regionals because that punishment more appropriately fits the crime – but that is not the standard set out in its own rules,” Judge Lazar wrote.

The Court of Appeals reversed the circuit court and remanded with directions to enter a permanent injunction consistent with its opinion.

Dissent: Court Should Have Deferred

Judge Neubauer argued in her dissent that the majority erred by not deferring to the WIAA’s interpretation of its rules.

Neubauer pointed out that an example in a WIAA guidance document published years before the Halters sued the WIAA makes clear that a suspension like the one Halter was subject to can only be served at a competition at the same level as the one in which the unsportsmanlike conduct calls were issued.

And she argued that the majority took the wrong lesson away from the WIAA’s enactment of a clarification of the “next competitive rule” shortly after Halter registered for the Badger Invitational.

“The revision did not effect a change in the rule,” Judge Neubauer wrote. “Rather, it confirmed the long-standing interpretation and application.”