Analysis: UHSAA struggles to explain ineligibility cases for East, Timpview

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The Utah High School Activities Association's Midvale headquarters was inundated with angry emails and calls Thursday when it released its executive committee's decision to force the East football team to forfeit seven games and exclude the Leopards from the state tournament.

Now that the UHSAA's board of trustees has reversed that decision, allowing the No. 1-ranked Leopards to play this postseason, executive director Rob Cuff says he's hearing more of the same — just from the other side of the fence.

"For us, it just seemed like a no-win situation," said Cuff, who was not part of either decision but was charged with explaining both on back-to-back days. "It hasn't been easy for the panels. It hasn't been easy for anyone. Either decision would affect certain schools."

But only one of the decisions — Friday's announcement that East would play — has finality to it. There is no appeal process; only the possibility that the same board would convene to hear new evidence.

The problem for many coaches in the state is that the ruling appears to set a new — and troubling — precedent.

Out of the same hearing, Timpview was forced to forfeit every game with an ineligible player. Although East forfeited six games, the Leopards didn't have to forfeit all of them. How can the same panel determine different consequences for similar infractions?

For East, the ruling was validation of what the school has said all along: Its cases were unique, and the innocent players in its program don't deserve to be punished for an athletic director's mistakes.

But others fear the precedent could be an open door for any program to argue that forfeits shouldn't apply when it comes to ineligible athletes.

"This decision makes no sense and reeks with inconsistency," said Logan coach Mike Favero, who won last year's 4A state title. "It's caused coaches, players and parents around the state of Utah to have no faith in the system."

The UHSAA still is drafting a long-form rationale for the seemingly dual nature of the Timpview and East punishments, but association legal counsel Mark Van Wagoner offered some insight into the panel's logic.

Van Wagoner, who sat in on deliberations for both panels but did not have a vote, said the East administration had failed its players so drastically that the board of trustees believed the players deserved relief. The panel kept most of the forfeits, but directed other sanctions at the school itself, such as the fines and a coaching suspension, to increase the severity while still allowing the team to play.

The UHSAA's bylaws give panels some discretion to fashion a punishment it deems necessary. Forfeits technically aren't required.

The association may push to change that policy in the coming year, but for now, the bodies still have wiggle room if they feel a situation calls for leniency.

"I think the panel felt like they had to save these kids from what East had done to them," Van Wagoner said. "The reality that you could tell from the decision is the panel was trying to find a way to spare them."

But coaches are crying foul because they feel punishments weren't applied evenly in the East and Timpview cases.

Herriman coach Larry Wilson is preparing his No. 1-seeded team for a potential game against East on Saturday, which will happen if the Leopards win a Tuesday play-in game against Mountain View. But he sees football as a separate issue from the glaring inconsistency in the rulings this week.

"It puts a lot of people in a difficult situation when you start applying different rules to the same basic problem," Wilson said. "I don't think it's fair to East, I don't think it's fair to Timpview, and I obviously don't think it's fair to the other schools. I think the system is flawed, and I would hope the UHSAA would get its ruling bodies in line with each other."

East is in the uncomfortable position of getting to play, but also dealing with some backlash from a decision that wasn't its own.

East principal Paul Sagers said in the original Region 6 ruling, which the executive committee overruled, that East hadn't taken any forfeits with the hope that it wouldn't affect other teams in the state.

"We're glad the UHSAA made the decision they did, but I hope that nobody blames East," Sagers said. "We tried to respect the process, and they came with a decision they thought was stiff enough to punish us."

During Friday's hearing, Sagers even offered to resign if would help sway the trustees' decision, and he tried to clarify that statement Saturday.

"I think that would be selfish on my part to even think about doing that," he said. "I think the school is better off with me here. I think if I did that, it would be considered a selfish act, like I was trying to run away. I was simply trying to illustrate how strongly I felt about letting the kids play. If that was what would help them play, I would do it."

The talk among coaches also cooled down Saturday. There was some informal discussions of forfeiting playoff games in protest as early as Friday afternoon, by that attitude turned into more of a wait-and-see approach in anticipation of the UHSAA's written decision to be released.

But the dissenting voices to the appeal decision has not gone away. And it probably will linger for a long time to come.

"Somebody needs to explain this decision: How one school has to forfeit every game with an ineligible player and one school doesn't," Favero said. "It just seems that each ruling is so subjective and different. I would hope our association has the intelligence and foresight to put a policy in place that can be consistently applied throughout the state."