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HIGH SCHOOLS

Rulings Strengthen CIF's Position

April 28, 2002|MIKE BRESNAHAN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

At a time when they perhaps need it most, the California Interscholastic Federation and comparable high school governing bodies across the nation have received boosts in legal power in recent weeks after rulings in court cases that originated in San Diego and Tennessee.

As the CIF grapples with recruiting and transferring issues--the Southern Section passed a stricter transfer rule Thursday--it and its 10 member sections were the beneficiaries of a decision by the state Supreme Court on April 10.

The court declined to review an appellate court decision that overturned a ruling finding CIF bylaws "facially unconstitutional," all but ending a five-year battle that challenged the CIF's definition of due process and contested the CIF's "undue influence" rule created to deter recruiting.

Also, the U.S. Supreme Court declined to hear a similar case on April 12, upholding a decision by the 6th Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals that a recruiting rule created by the Tennessee Secondary School Athletic Assn. (TSSAA) does not violate the 1st and 14th Amendments.

"It's been a long and expensive road to go down with these two cases," Southern Section Commissioner James Staunton said. "But it came back around full circle."

The first case involved the CIF's San Diego Section and John Ryan, a student from Australia who was declared athletically ineligible in 1997 at Rancho Buena Vista High because of alleged undue influence by football Coach Craig Bell.

An initial decision by the San Diego Superior Court in August 2000 ruled that under the due process clause of the California Constitution, the CIF failed to provide minimal procedural due process to athletes and coaches who were charged with violations.

The trial court decision also found unconstitutional the CIF bylaws that made illegal the presence of "undue influence" in transfer situations, potentially throwing open the door to nonpunishable recruiting.

But in an opinion upheld by the state Supreme Court, the 4th District Court of Appeals in San Diego reversed the initial decision, ruling that "the opportunity to participate in interscholastic athletic activities is a privilege, not a right or an entitlement" that warranted due process protection.

"To conclude otherwise would entitle a student to invoke state constitutional procedural due process protections upon the suffering of any educational disappointment, whether it be the failure to make a varsity squad, to obtain an acting role in a school theatrical production, or to represent the school on an academic team," the court ruled.

Ryan, the appellate court said, "was provided an adequate opportunity to be heard in a meaningful and reasonably timely fashion."

The appellate court also found that substantial evidence supported the San Diego Section's charge of undue influence. For example, at Bell's request, Robert Ryan sent pictures of his son standing, sitting and dunking a basketball, court documents said. Ryan's father also contacted Bell, requesting assistance in finding housing for his son.

"It's a home run for the CIF," said Christian M. Keiner, an attorney with the CIF general counsel's office. "Given that ruling, the current CIF procedures are constitutional."

The Tennessee case also began in 1997, after the TSSAA banned Brentwood Academy, a parochial school that had won nine state football championships, from the football and boys' basketball playoffs for two years because it violated recruiting rules by inviting incoming ninth graders to participate in spring football practice.

In 1998, a district court in Tennessee ruled that the TSSAA's recruiting rules were unconstitutional restraints that prohibited lawful speech and freedom of assembly. Like the Ryan case, the decision appeared to allow room for nonpunishable recruiting while allowing schools the right to sue high school athletic associations for violating a member's civil rights.

A year later, however, the 6th Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals reversed the initial decision, saying the TSSAA was not an actor of the state and therefore could not be sued for violation of constitutional rights.

But in February 2001, the U.S. Supreme Court held that the TSSAA was a state actor subject to being sued for violation of constitutional rights and remanded the case to the 6th Circuit.

In August 2001, the 6th Circuit held that the recruiting rule facially does not violate the 1st Amendment and Brentwood Academy's right to free speech. The Supreme Court refused to hear the case again earlier this month, leaving in place the ruling by the circuit court that the TSSAA's recruiting rule on its face was constitutional.

The only issue remaining is whether the recruiting rule as applied to Brentwood Academy violated the school's free speech rights. That part of the case was remanded to the U.S. District Court for the Middle District of Tennessee and will be argued in August.

"We've got a ways to go before we're home yet, but I'm pleased with where the association stands at this point in the proceedings," said Rick Colbert, the TSSAA legal counsel. "It would have been difficult to write a recruiting rule without any teeth at all. Its pretty scary to think things that aren't even allowed to go on at the NCAA level could go on at high schools and with eighth graders."

Similar relief has been felt by the Southern Section.

"Our governance has been pretty well established by the courts and state," Staunton said. "If it got down to it, I'd be willing to put my faith behind our rules. I don't want to spend money on arguing in the courts, but I'd be willing to do so in order that the public arena sees the CIF is attempting to do the right thing."

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