The governing body for Massachusetts high school athletics is leaning on PR support as it navigates outrage and debate after a football referee negated a would-be winning touchdown in a state championship game.

The Massachusetts Interscholastic Athletic Association is working with New England PR counselor Paul Wetzel as the group works damage control amid national scrutiny of the state Division 4A championship game.

In the controversial play, Cathedral High School quarterback Matthew Owens was running for a 56-yard touchdown against Blue Hills Regional Vocation Technical School when he raised his left first for less than one second in apparent triumph before running to the endzone, drawing a penalty for excessive celebration. The penalty, based on a new state sports rule this year, negated the potential go-ahead score and Cathedral lost the game.

Clips of the play like the one below have been widely viewed online and broadcast throughout the U.S. on sports news reports.



Wetzel issued a statement for the MIAA on Dec. 7 noting the referee reminded captains and coaches of the two teams of the new rule against unsportsmanlike actions before the game. The MIAA also said Cathedral’s coach did not challenge the call and pointing out decisions are final once a game is over.

MIAA offered this observation as well:
“Losing a game, having an official’s call go against you, even occasionally having an officials’ mistake go against you or your team are all part of sports.”

Boston Globe high school sports editor Robert Holmes was asked about the play by NPR. He said:
“They absolutely all knew about it. It's a relatively new rule this year, and Massachusetts is one of two states, along with Texas, that follows the NCAA rule book. And the goal here is to keep those silly celebrations that we all see on Sunday with the NFL from trickling down to both college and high school. It was really a black-and-white issue. You're not allowed to raise your hand like that. I think the official probably feels like the Christmas Scrooge right now, but I think he did the right thing.”

Boston Mayor Thomas Menino poured some gas on the fire when he criticized the decision. "I think sometimes these rules are written by frustrated athletes," Menino said, according to Wednesday's Boston Herald. "They never participated in a sport, and they don't know what it is to be excited. You play in a football game, you run for a touchdown, and you do something special."

Wetzel told the paper he's "not interested in getting into a back-and-forth with the mayor."

While the new rule is based on one enacted at the college level in football to eliminate offensive acts like taunting and overt celebrations, its enforcement is up to the subjective view of the referee, more so than a penalty for, say, having too many men on the field. With a championship game on the like, I'd hope that it requires more than a raised hand to draw a flag from the zebras.

MIAA’s declaration that it’s “all part of sports” seems like a defensive way of trying to make a bad call into a teachable moment.