Partially blind official wants job back

Originally Published: July 20, 2006
By Wayne Drehs | ESPN.com

Jim Filson didn't give up his dream of working as a Big Ten football official despite losing sight in his right eye after an accident six years ago.

Supported by Dave Parry, the Big Ten's supervisor of officials, Filson, an eight-year conference veteran, returned to the field the fall after the accident and officiated the next five seasons. He said he received higher performance ratings with one eye than he did with two, and earned the prestigious postseason assignment of working an Orange Bowl.

But last spring, the Big Ten fired him. In a lawsuit filed Monday in the Northern District of Illinois, Filson claimed under the American Disabilities Act that the decision was made strictly on the basis that he has vision in only one eye.

Filson said in the suit that Big Ten Commissioner Jim Delaney fired him after Michigan coach Lloyd Carr complained that Filson was officiating with one eye.

"Mr. Delaney's perceptions about me are false," Filson said in a statement to the Illinois Department of Human Rights. "I fully meet all of the physical requirements of the job, as was exhibited by my very successful performance on the field in the five years after my accident and before my termination."

Since the suit was filed, the officiating community has been abuzz. Discussions have centered on three main topics:

• Do officials, who have been seen by conferences as independent contractors, have the same rights as employees?
• What physical requirements must a person meet to be an official?
• Does a league or conference have any right to enforce those requirements?

"This is kind of a burgeoning problem," said attorney Alan S. Goldberger, who advises the 16,000-member National Association of Sports Officials. "It's something nobody really wants to touch because it's extremely awkward.

"Officials are expected, despite the 'Three Blind Mice' songs and everything, to have good eyesight, to be able to run fast, and to maintain an athletic posture. But what do you do when someone shows up in a wheelchair and says they want to be a Big Ten referee? You can't turn them away. It's a challenge. You need to accommodate people."

Filson worked in the Big Ten for eight seasons before he fell and hit his right eye on the corner of a table in an accident in March 2000. He permanently lost his vision in the eye. In the lawsuit, Filson said he informed Parry with the Big Ten about the accident and subsequent surgery to have his eye removed and a prosthetic put in its place. The suit said Parry encouraged him to try to return to the field.

After consulting with several medical experts and working spring and summer basketball and football games to test his vision, the suit said, Filson decided he was able to officiate. He returned to officiating that fall, the suit said, with Parry's approval and understanding of Filson's situation.

Filson's suit said he spent the next five seasons officiating without incident and that his reviews were "substantially better" in the five seasons with one eye than they were in the eight seasons when he had both.

Before the spring of 2005, the suit said, a reporter informed Michigan's Carr that Filson was officiating with one eye. Carr complained to Delaney, the Big Ten Commissioner, the suit said. Without any vision test or medical exam or formal meeting, the suit said, Delaney told Parry to fire Filson. The official was dismissed May 3, 2005.

In a subsequent meeting with Filson, Delaney explained the action because Filson did not "have two eyes" and failed to meet the "minimum physical requirements" of the job, the suit said. Delaney said that if Filson missed a judgment call and the public or coaches knew the official had only one eye, he would have "hell to pay."

The Big Ten Conference, Delaney and Parry declined to comment, citing the pending lawsuit. Filson and his attorney declined to comment, saying only that they stood by the allegations.

Carr also declined to comment.

The case is being watched. Tommy Hunt, who officiated in the ACC for 26 years and is now the league's Coordinator of Football Officials, referred to it as "a strange one."

"I hate to say it, but there are two things you have to be able to do in officiating: You have to be able to move and you have to be able to see," he said. "But if the guy is performing on the field, I'm not sure if the conference is going to have much of an argument, even if he has only one eye."

There is legal precedent here. In 1996, Lorenzo Clemons sued the Big Ten claiming he was wrongfully dismissed "due to a perceived disability of obesity," and because he is black. Clemons also sued under the Americans with Disabilities Act. He lost the case.

"But with me, they had the ratings," Clemons said this week. "They consistently gave me lower ratings all along, knowing what they were going to do with me. But with Jimmy, he's always had high ratings. I mean, if he was really that bad, then why didn't they do this earlier? And why did they send him to an Orange Bowl?"

Clemons worked with Filson in the Gateway Conference and in the Big Ten. After hearing about Filson's injury, Clemons specifically watched the official's games on television to see how he was making due with one eye.

"He looked like he was doing everything he was supposed to do," Clemons said. "You couldn't see any difference in his officiating abilities from before the accident to after."

In 2003, a deaf basketball official, Marsha Wetzel, sued the Eastern College Athletic Conference, contending the league failed to provide her the same opportunity to participate that was afforded others.

Also suing under the ADA, Wetzel won her case and the league was forced to have sign-language interpreters and other aids available to her for meetings, training seminars and games.

Goldberger, the lawyer who advises the sports officials association, said: "If you employ officials such as a conference might, you say this person is deaf, this person has one eye, this person has a muscular disorder so he or she is disqualified. That doesn't fly anymore."

Also at issue are the rights of individual referees. Most conferences view officials as independent contractors and pay them about $750 a game to work 12 weekends a year. Officials see themselves as employees and thus eligible for the same rights.

For Filson's case to fit under ADA Title I, which his geared toward employee rights, Filson's attorney will need to establish that he was a Big Ten employee and not an independent contractor. If his lawyer can't, Filson also has filed under ADA Title III, which states that the Big Ten is a "public accommodation" and needs to hire and fire people without discriminating.

"The Big Ten isn't going to be able to just walk away from this," Goldberger said. "If everything in this lawsuit is true -- and remember we've only heard half of the story so far -- but if everything is true, the Big Ten doesn't look like it has a whole lot of wiggle room here."

Filson's lawsuit seeks his reinstatement, back pay from games he missed, damages for emotional distress and lawyer fees. If he wins, could he return to the field knowing every move would be scrutinized?

"God willing I hope he continues," Goldberger said. "But it will be difficult. It will be just another bit of ammo to use when he misses a call."

Clemons, the former Big Ten official, doesn't think it would be a problem, either with the fans or between the lines.

"Knowing Jimmy, if he had any doubts about himself he wouldn't do it," Clemons said. "He would have said, 'It's not working, I'm just going to retire.' But he didn't do that. This just comes down to mechanics. If a person knows their mechanics, they can do it with one eye. All you have to do is be in position to make the call."

Wayne Drehs is a senior writer with ESPN.com. He can be reached at wayne.drehs@espn3.com .