CHSAA: Rush to judgment or secret evidence?

Randy Essex
Randy Essex

Wow, the Colorado High School Activities Association sure moves fast.

Perhaps lost in the news that CHSAA put Rifle High School’s football program on restriction over the location of a videographer during a Nov. 22 playoff game is that the whole thing was done in about six business days.

For a punishment that included suspending a head coach for the first game next season and that was sure to rock a football-proud school and town, that just seems fast.

Maybe even hasty.

Maybe cavalier and ungracious.

It set up an aftermath that was unnecessarily contentious and, because it was done by edict rather than through an open process, that is more likely to leave Rifle’s players bitter than to teach them about fairness.

It also leaves several questions, not the least of which is: To whom is CHSAA accountable?

Fort Morgan played at Rifle on Saturday, Nov. 22. Fort Morgan Athletic Director Kyle Bules, in the second half of his team’s 35-7 loss, angrily confronted a volunteer videographer on Fort Morgan’s sideline.

Without question, Bruce Harper, who now formerly shot video highlights for the slickly produced “Rifle Football Weekly” webcast, was at times too close to the Fort Morgan bench. One photo that Bules sent to the Post Independent of Harper just about in Coach Harrison Chisum’s back pocket is hard to explain or excuse.

Bules lost his cool — you can see it on video Harper shot — and probably didn’t set a great example for his kids.

For Harper’s part, it seems plausible that he shot back sarcastically at Bules, at first not knowing who he was.

Bules told CHSAA that Harper tapped him on the shoulder, asking, “Is that better, buddy?” Bules wrote that Harper also said he was talking to Rifle’s defensive coordinator through his equipment — which Rifle’s side swears was not possible.

In correspondence with CHSAA later, Rifle Principal Todd Ellis wrote of Harper, “I can concede that he may have” spoken inappropriately.

So, quite possibly, these two grown men being angry at each other started things in motion.

This is all about what’s best for the kids, right?

The next business day, Monday, Bules fired off a letter to CHSAA Assistant Commissioner Harry Waterman outlining his allegations that Harper spied on Fort Morgan and “was calling in our plays.” He wanted the matter “fully investigated at the CHSAA level.”

The speed with which events unfolded over the next two weeks suggest an angry letter was taken largely at face value and make it hard to believe that anything was “fully investigated.”

Rifle was copied on Bules’ letter, and the Rifle athletic director sent a letter denying the allegations the next day, Tuesday, Nov. 25. Thursday and Friday were Thanksgiving break, and on Saturday the 29th, Rifle lost the 3A championship game to Pueblo East.

According to correspondence the PI obtained through the Colorado Open Records Act, Rifle officials expected to hear from CHSAA the next week and get a chance to tell their side of the story. Instead, on Dec. 4 — the seventh business day after the semifinal game — they got a letter from Waterman saying the team was on restriction and Coach Damon Wells would have to sit out the first game of 2015 “due to the flagrant and unethical use of video equipment on the opponent’s sideline during a semifinal contest.”

Among Rifle’s lingering concerns is that it didn’t get to present its side of things.

Among my concerns is that CHSAA, which sets the rules for high school competitions of all types, requires public school boards each year to accept CHSAA bylaws and collects a few hundred thousand dollars in public money annually, doesn’t have to be transparent.

Its response to an open records request from the PI was “CHSAA is not the state, an agency of the state or a political subdivision of the state. It is a ‘local government-financed entity’” under Colorado law, so faces only limited disclosure requirements.

That may be the letter of the law. Maybe that needs to be revisited. I think CHSAA sets public policy and spends public money and should be required to be transparent.

In response, I have asked CHSAA to “voluntarily release the documents we initially requested in the name and spirit of transparency; public understanding of regulation and enforcement of rules surrounding high school football; and, simply, good public relations for the organization. What could those documents contain that you wouldn’t want the public to see?”

Maybe there are no documents, the “investigation” was done so quickly. Maybe CHSAA has other complaints; association officials told PI sports editor Jon Mitchell that Rifle’s videographer was of concern in two earlier playoff games, but that’s not cited in the letter of restriction.

CHSAA didn’t have a rule in place on Nov. 22 restricting where media representatives could be. Such a rule was adopted in December.

Absent that rule, Commissioner Paul Angelico punished Rifle under a clause that empowers him to issue penalties for conduct he deems detrimental to CHSAA’s mission — you know, all about what’s good for the kids.

It’s sort of the like the power of the commissioner of baseball to act in the best interests of the game — except baseball commissioners conduct thorough investigations before using that power.

If CHSAA has evidence of a pattern of cheating, this punishment probably isn’t enough. If Rifle is being punished just for what happened against Fort Morgan, a stern warning requiring a corrective plan would have been more appropriate. In either case, more conversation, deliberation — and openness — would seem better to show high school athletes how their sports are being regulated by level-headed grown-ups who have nothing to hide.

Randy Essex is editor of the Post Independent.

Support Local Journalism

Support Local Journalism

Readers around Glenwood Springs and Garfield County make the Post Independent’s work possible. Your financial contribution supports our efforts to deliver quality, locally relevant journalism.

Now more than ever, your support is critical to help us keep our community informed about the evolving coronavirus pandemic and the impact it is having locally. Every contribution, however large or small, will make a difference.

Each donation will be used exclusively for the development and creation of increased news coverage.