Originally created 11/07/02

Marlboro County sues to get into playoffs



COLUMBIA, S.C. -- Two days after the South Carolina High School League barred Marlboro County's football team from the state playoffs, the county's school district has sued to get back into the postseason.

And parents at Northwestern High have spoken with Rock Hill lawyer Phil Murdock about suing to reclaim their spot in the playoffs, which begin Nov. 15.

The two schools were placed on probation after an ugly postgame brawl on Sept. 13. The High School League upheld the punishment on Monday, shutting both Class 4A powers out of the playoffs.

Marlboro County (8-2) won the Class 4A, Division II state title last year and Northwestern (9-1) was runner-up in 2001 to Spartanburg in the Class 4A, Division I - also known as "the Big 16" - championship game.

The lawyers from Marlboro County say they will ask a judge before the end of this week to issue a temporary restraining order allowing the Bulldogs to play in the playoffs.

Murdock said if the Northwestern parents decide to sue, he also will ask a judge to step in and allow the Trojans to play until the issue can be settled in court.

"It was the wrong decision," Murdock said Wednesday. "It was factually wrong, it was legally wrong, it was morally wrong."

On Monday, Northwestern principal Bill Gummerson told The (Rock Hill) Herald he was discussing further action with the superintendent and board chairman. Gummerson didn't return a phone call from The Associated Press on Wednesday.

In its lawsuit, the Marlboro County School Board accused members of the High School League's 16-person executive committee of:

- Discussing its appeal outside the hearing and keeping no record of the proceedings.

- Considering evidence that school officials were never allowed to see.

- Drawing up the Class 4A, Division II brackets without Marlboro County before the appeal was ever heard.

- Giving no explanation or facts as to why the appeal was denied.

- Failing to follow the state's Freedom of Information act by barring district officials and the media from hearing Monday's appeals.

Sixteen Marlboro County players were suspended for at least one game for their role in the brawl, and three were kicked off the team for the season. The district said that punishment was sufficient enough and said keeping the players who did not fight out of the playoffs would cause "immediate and irreparable harm."

The district also said it will lose $10,000 per home game if Marlboro County is kept out of the playoffs.

Northwestern had three players suspended for two games and one player removed for the season, although school officials said an enhanced tape of the incident suggests the Trojan punished the most severely may have been trying to protect himself or a teammate when he swung his helmet.

Even though several tapes of the Sept. 13 brawl exist, accounts of the fight vary.

Fans rushed on the field and ran at the players after Northwestern's 14-10 victory. Several fights broke out, and Rock Hill police officers pulled people off a pile.

Marlboro County quarterback Syvelle Newton was apparently knocked out in the fight, according to several newspaper reports. Other accounts had several players getting doused with pepper spray.

Replays of the brawl aired on television stations around South Carolina, and that kind of media coverage may have caused the High School League to send a message by barring the teams from the playoffs, Murdock said.

"The finding had nothing to do with the facts and everything to do with setting a precedent," said Murdock, a former player and coach at Northwestern. "That's not fair to those kids being punished."