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VALLEY / VENTURA COUNTY SPORTS | ERIC SONDHEIMER

To Waste Court Time Is Supreme Stupidity

March 05, 2000|ERIC SONDHEIMER

Everyone knew the day was coming when high school sports became more important than life or death.

Well, the apocalypse is upon us.

The U.S. Supreme Court, which turns down hundreds of appeals from Death Row inmates, has agreed to use its precious time to decide whether a state high school athletic association can prohibit private schools from recruiting athletes.

In the case of Brentwood Academy vs. Tennessee Secondary School Athletic Assn. to be heard next fall, the Supreme Court is entering volatile territory.

Emotions are not running as high as Roe vs. Wade, the 1973 decision that established abortion rights. The stakes are not as far-reaching as Brown vs. Topeka, Kan., Board of Education, the 1954 decision that abolished segregation in public schools.

But don't tell that to the sports-crazed families who reside in Tennessee, Texas, California or any community where high school sports has become a rite of absolute passion.

Brentwood Academy's attorney fees have surpassed $1 million since the school filed a lawsuit in 1997 after the TSSAA barred the football and basketball teams from the state playoffs for two years and imposed a $3,000 fine for having improper contact with middle school athletes.

Brentwood went to federal court, claiming the TSSAA's recruiting rules that barred coaches from talking to athletes violated First Amendment rights to free speech. A district court judge ruled in favor of Brentwood. The Sixth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Cincinnati reversed the district court ruling.

But the Supreme Court granted Brentwood's request last month to review the lawsuit, opening the way for a significant ruling that could affect state high school athletic associations throughout the nation.

The TSSAA's recruiting rules are similar to those of the California Interscholastic Federation and athletic associations in other states. Make them illegal and who knows what kind of open combat would break out between public and private schools seeking the boy who can run the fastest 40-yard dash or the girl who can hit a softball the farthest.

"It would destroy the concept of fairness," said Robert Kanaby, executive director of the National Federation of State High School Assn. "It would be like the voucher system in reverse. The rich would get richer and the poor would get poorer."

Ronnie Carter, executive director of the TSSAA, said "chaos" would reign if schools were allowed to contact any students they want.

"We'd have high schools in our state literally contacting kids in seventh and eighth grade like the colleges do," Carter said. "Just picture the Los Angeles area if everybody could talk to every kid and try to get them to go to every high school. We will create an even more extreme picture of sports being the panacea that solves everyone's life."

Dean Crowley, who recently retired as commissioner of the Southern Section, said throwing out recruiting rules would be "a death blow" to high school athletics.

"When you're getting into recruiting, you're talking lots of money," Crowley said. "You don't know what incentives are paid under the table. It's almost incomprehensible we've gotten this far. It's a scary possibility."

Brentwood was penalized because of two recruiting violations. The football coach sent a letter to incoming ninth-graders inviting them to participate in spring football practice. The letter was sent only to new students who had been accepted for admission and was followed up with a phone call. The other violation involved football tickets being left for a middle school coach that were used by middle school students.

Brentwood, a nine-time Tennessee state champion in football, contends it is a violation of free speech to prevent private schools from communicating with potential students.

"This has to do with fairness and accountability and the right of Brentwood to tell their story and the right of parents and students to hear their story," said Tom Nebel, an attorney for Brentwood.

The question of free speech rights might not be decided by the Supreme Court. The legal question before the court is whether state high school athletic associations are public or private. The district court ruled the TSSAA was a state actor, bounding it to follow the Constitution. The Sixth Circuit reversed, ruling the TSSAA was not a state actor.

"I hope the Supreme Court will definitely declare these state high school associations are truly voluntary and not state actors, and maybe we won't see the proliferation of lawsuits," said Rick Colbert, an attorney for the TSSAA.

Blame whoever--coaches, parents, high schools, colleges, attorneys, the media--but it's amazing that a lawsuit involving high school sports recruiting has reached the Supreme Court.

"We've almost created a monster," Carter said.

*

Eric Sondheimer's local column appears Wednesday and Sunday. He can be reached at 818-772-3422 or eric.sondheimer@latimes.com

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