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After ugly brawl, Northwest Indiana hoops teams are cleared to play

A judge in Northwest Indiana issued a temporary restraining order on Monday that will allow two suspended high school basketball teams to compete this week in the state tournament.        

It’s been nearly a month since the bench-clearing brawl near the start of a boys’ basketball game between Griffith and Hammond high schools. A video of the Feb. 7th fight was posted to YouTube and soon the national media took it up, including ESPN.

Days later, Bobby Cox, head of the Indiana High School Athletic Association, handed down what some had dubbed the “death penalty”:

  • Suspension of the last remaining games of the season, meaning Griffith forfeited six games and Hammond four.
  • A fine of $500 paid to each school the teams were supposed to play on the road.
  • No tournament play.
  • Completion of an online course about sportsmanship.
  • 10 players from each team were also suspended by their respected schools for five days.

Cox said the IHSAA was trying to send a message that such brawls would not be tolerated. It was the first major fight since another big brawl of two high school football teams in October 2013. A task force was set up to recommended stiffer penalties for the future.  

But a team of lawyers representing Griffith and Hammond high schools argued that Cox went overboard. And on Monday — after nearly six hours of testimony — Lake County, Indiana Superior Court Judge John Pera agreed.

“The action by (IHSAA) was illegal, arbitrary, excessive and contrary to law,” Pera stated from his bench in Crown Point in extending the Temporary Restraining Order.

The TRO allows both teams to practice to compete in the opening rounds of the Indiana state basketball tournament. Both teams will open tournament play against other teams at Gavit High School in Hammond. Griffith plays Thursday and Hammond on Friday.

“These kids have gone through a lot the last two or three weeks and it’s good for them to get back on the court and have an opportunity to compete in the tournament,” said Larry Moore Sr., Hammond High’s Athletic Director whose son is head coach for the team. “That’s what it’s all about. Indiana basketball.”

Meanwhile, Cox said he was disappointed in the judge’s ruling.

“We felt like we were enforcing our rules. We had a just penalty and the court has decided that’s not such,” Cox said who sat in the courtroom next to the IHSAA’s attorney Robert Baker.

In court, Baker listed a number of brawls at recent high school football and basketball games. The last one, in October 2013, involved football coaches and players fighting on the field. Players were suspended for one game but the teams were allowed to compete in the state tournament that season.

After that, Baker said the IHSAA created a task force that recommended tougher penalties for future incidents. For the first incident, a one game suspension. For the second offense in the same year, a two-game suspension.

But Michael Jasaitis, one of the three attorneys on the case for the high schools, said Cox went well beyond the recommendations for tougher penalties.

“Compared to prior punishments issued by the IHSAA the last four years, this was disproportionate and excessive,” Jasaitis said. “Everybody involved has already expressed remorse, has apologized and doesn’t condone those activities. However, punishments need to be consistent.”

Another issue that came up in court is that the suspended students had no grounds to challenge the penalties. That’s because under the association’s own rules, the students were not “affected parties,” only the schools were.

Judge Pera found that argument to be “disingenuous” by the IHSAA.

The attorneys for the students said the players were “the most affected” parties of anyone in the case and should be allowed to challenge the suspensions.

Another concern for players was that in missing the state high school basketball tournament known as “Hoosier Hysteria,” they might lose out on potential scholarships.

Griffith senior Anthony Harris testified that offers from local colleges to play ball next year have all but evaporated. Harris said he had been fielding offers from South Suburban College in South Holland, Ill., and Purdue University Calumet in Hammond.

“I apologize to Bobby Cox,” Harris said from the stand. “We all make mistakes.”

Hammond and Griffith hope to use the episode as a “teachable moment.” The schools will sit down together for dinner later this month and learn about sportsmanship from E’Twaun Moore, a former East Chicago, Ind. standout who now plays for the Chicago Bulls.

“Both Hammond and Griffith young men made a bad judgement but they both did everything they can to show their remorse for it and we think the court’s order was appropriate,” said veteran Northwest Indiana attorney Rhett Tauber representing Griffith in the case.

Baker said he’s unsure if the IHSAA plans to appeal the decision.

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