Judge dismisses Amite case; team still ousted from prep playoffs; coach says players wrongly branded brawlers _lowres

Advocate photo by HEIDI KINCHEN -- Amite football coach Zephaniah Powell discusses a 19th Judicial District judge's dismissal Friday of the school's challenge to LHSAA's ruling removing the Warriors from the Class 3A playoffs after a Nov. 27 on-field altercation between Amite and District 7-3A rival Bogalusa.

Amite High School’s title hopes ended Friday morning when a state district judge ruled the court had no authority to second-guess the LHSAA’s decision to remove the team from the prep football playoffs after an on-field fight last week.

The 11th-seeded Amite (8-5) had been slated to host No. 15 St. James (10-3) in a semifinal game Friday night. Instead, the Warriors effectively forfeited the game after practicing all week.

St. James will advance to face Lutcher, a 46-38 overtime winner over West Felicana, in the 3A title game.

Amite’s suspension followed a benches-clearing fight with District 7-3A rival Bogalusa on Nov. 27. Amite was leading 56-20 with less than two minutes remaining when the fight began. The game was called soon afterward.

LHSAA Executive Director Eddie Bonine met with both schools Monday and decided to remove Amite from the playoffs, citing an LHSAA bylaw that automatically disqualifies players who leave the bench area during a fight.

On appeal, the LHSAA’s executive committee upheld Bonine’s decision. The Tangipahoa Parish School Board then filed a lawsuit seeking to overturn the ruling.

At the hearing Friday, LHSAA attorney Mark Boyer said there was no real dispute that both bench areas cleared during the altercation, and the organization’s bylaws clearly dictate the outcome.

Boyer argued the case should be tossed out because the LHSAA is not subject to lawsuits contesting its decision-making.

School Board attorney Chris Moody countered that the court should hear Amite’s case because, he said, the LHSAA’s decision was arbitrary. Other schools involved in similar altercations were not similarly suspended from their next games, Moody said, citing the Oct. 8 matchup between Edna Karr and Lake Area as an example.

“Only a few players were suspended, the teams still played the next week and one of them is now in the playoffs,” Moody said. “All we’re asking for is similar treatment.”

But Judge William Morvant, of the 19th Judicial District, said he could not consider whether the sanctions against Amite were fair without first deciding whether the court had the authority to hear the case.

Morvant said state courts of appeal and the Louisiana Supreme Court repeatedly have said the judicial system has no jurisdiction to review the decisions of a private organization of voluntary members, like the LHSAA.

“You’re challenging LHSAA’s interpretation and application of its own rules and regulations, as well as the ruling and conclusion that the sanction to be imposed is for Amite to forfeit the next game,” Morvant said. “Unless you can show a violation of a constitutionally protected right or of state law, there is no authority for judicial interference.”

Morvant said he had no choice but to dismiss the case.

Amite coach Zephaniah Powell, visibly shaken after the ruling, said he was “at a loss” on what to tell his players.

“They got labeled as fighters, brawlers and thugs, and it stuck,” Powell said. “They’re not going to take it well because they know that the four best teams in 3A are not playing.”

Amite’s contention has been that a number of players were on the field because of a touchdown and an ensuing extra point for special teams, and those players should not have been suspended from the next game.

Powell added Friday that some players also were headed to the field house for safety reasons.

“We had kids being assaulted,” Powell said. “It was a crisis management situation. What were we supposed to do?”

Powell denied that all 37 of his uniformed players left the bench area — a contention that baffled Bonine, LHSAA’s executive director.

Reached at the Superdome after the ruling, Bonine said Amite’s story has changed over the course of the week from confirming an incident of “mutual combat” to arguing that players were on the field for various other reasons.

“The bottom line is there were multiple fights identified by both administrations,” Bonine said. “Both agreed when we met in my office (Monday) that both benches cleared. I asked them, point-blank, is there anyone in the room refuting that the benches were cleared? No one said a word. I said, ‘OK, I got my answer.’ ”

Bonine said comparisons to other incidents, like the Edna Karr-Lake Area fight, were “not comparing apples to apples.” The players identified as having left the bench area or participating in those fights were suspended and, in one case, assault charges were filed, he said.

“They’re just grasping at straws to try to divert away from the fact that their kids were fighting on the field,” Bonine said. “The bottom line is the coaches are responsible for the kids. Don’t point fingers at the officials for allowing it to get out of control. It’s your job to control your players.”

Follow Heidi R. Kinchen on Twitter, @HeidiRKinchen, and call her at (225) 336-6981.