Legal “Rights” To High School Athletics

I’ll apologize at the start for the length of this post…

I’ve been sent this news story (found here) multiple times over the past couple weeks from people either sending it as an FYI or curious to know my opinion on it.  Before I comment on it, I feel like I need to place a couple disclaimers:

1. I have spent some time researching legalities in high school sports, but I am not even close to a legal expert.
2.  Again, I am not a legal expert.  Not even close.
3.  I have read multiple articles that summarize this case, and I have read both the court summons and the affidavit.  That said, I haven’t studied this particular case in close detail.  As I comment throughout this post, I do so based on my own understanding of what I’ve read.

OK – quick summary:
– The kid went to a school music concert (presumably as a participant) in 2010 causing him to miss a basketball game.
– The school’s Code of Conduct stipulated that students would attend fine arts performances in the case of such a conflict.
– The kid served a half game suspension as a result of attending the concert, then  claims he was slowly deprived of playing time and was treated poorly for the rest of that season and the seasons leading up to his 2013 graduation.
– The kid used Twitter to express his disgust early in the 2012-13 season.
– The kid was removed from the team in December of 2012.
– Conversations between the kid/parent and school administration took place in the spring of 2013.
– This suit was filed in the fall of 2014 after discussions went nowhere.

In reading through some various content, it appears that the kid is claiming that his current lawsuit is not a retaliation against the school because of his removal from the team but rather an attempt to change the political structure of the administration at his previous high school.  As I read through the summaries, I see a whole lot wrong with just about everybody associated with this case.  In the long run, my guess is that the only winner in this case will be the kid’s lawyer (who probably knows that he is going to lose this case,  but he’s going to make a nice payday and get some nationwide press in the process).

Here’s where I think the kid is wrong:
First and foremost, high school athletics has been protected MULTIPLE times as a privilege, not a right, and therefore doesn’t fall under protection of any state law or constitutional amendment as they apply to public education.  Meaning: participation on a public school team is subject to whatever rules and regulations deemed necessary by the school or team (this is why teams can have such rules like haircut guidelines).  To be clear, I’m not advocating or condoning the use of arbitrary rules for the sake of having rules, but athletic teams do need to hold their athletes to a higher standard than the general student body.
Knowing that athletics is a privilege and not a right, 1st Amendment free speech is not protected.  The kid’s tweets regarding his role on the team are a viable reason for removing him from the team (many college teams now have rules against players using social media – Twitter in particular).  Similarly, due process (14th Amendment) is not protected on athletic teams (in fact, recent recommendations to athletic directors have been to remove any mention of due process from the Code of Conduct because it isn’t necessary).  More than that, the mention that guidelines within the student handbook weren’t followed (the written summary of accusations) aren’t applicable because the incident happened during athletics (not protected) and not as a student receiving public education (protected). Again, not that I suggest doing this, but coaches and administrators can remove players from teams for many, many different reasons.
The allegation that removal from this team hampered the kid’s opportunity at scholarship dollars is foolish.  As I wrote in a previous post, if only 3% of high school athletes get athletic scholarships, it’s impossible to assume that any 1 kid will meet that criteria.  Even if he had the natural athletic ability to compete at the college level (and he might because he’s now a college high jumper), ability alone doesn’t guarantee a scholarship.  It doesn’t matter that he “…had the desire to participate…at the highest level…”

Where the coaches went wrong:
If school policy dictated that music takes precedence over athletics, the kid shouldn’t have sat as a result of his music participation.  We have this same procedure in place for our athletic programs, and my expectation is that our coaches wouldn’t punish a kid for doing what we tell the kid he/she has to do.
If the kid’s playing time was significantly reduced, the kid should have been made aware of why during an individual player meeting.  If the coach wasn’t hosting individual player meetings, I wonder how he thought any of his players were going to improve in the areas the coach found lacking?
Despite 1st Amendment free speech rights not being protected for high school athletics, the coach should still have had some type of social media policy listed in team rules.

Where the admin went wrong:
It’s tough for me to comment completely on this because I haven’t seen a response affidavit outlining the administration’s side of the story.  Based on what the kid has reported, I don’t agree with some of the comments and actions made by admin, but I won’t accept those comments as truth yet, either.  The single biggest mistake that I can see without digging is that the coach was allowed to sit the kid for a half following a policy put into place by the school.  If the school dictates attending fine arts over athletics, I’m disappointed that the kid was punished for attending his music concert.  The rest of it is speculative for those of us at a distance; I won’t attempt to know or learn if or why his playing time was reduced.

My takeaway from this whole mess:
Kids – your participation on an athletic team is a privilege granted to you because you have some natural ability.  You are responsible for keeping that privilege.
Kids – you probably aren’t going to get a college scholarship.  Work hard and do the right things because that’s what you do, not to earn the golden ring.  Quit treating high school athletics like a definite step to the next level.
Coaches – have your policies and procedures in writing for your athletes to see at the outset of the season.  Then follow them.
Coaches – at the very least, have pre-season and post-season individual meetings with your players.  The only way they can get better is to know (1) what you expect of them and (2) what they aren’t doing right.
Coaches – understand that you coach a high school sport.  That’s it.  Kids, like adults, have a lot of stuff going on in their lives, so it’s important that we’re tolerant of those issues.
Administration –  like coaches, get your school policies in writing.  Then follow them.
Administration – stay professional in the way you deal with kids and parents.  I shudder every time I read articles or comments where an admin appears to be acting as a higher authority.  We are in our roles in part because of how we interact with people.  It’s part of our duty to treat people in the professional manner expected from our offices.

Am I right?  Am I wrong?  Am I WAY wrong?  Let me know via comment or email!  I’m interested in others’ opinions on this topic.

2 Responses

  1. Jerry Davis (Grandfather)

    This is coming from a Grandfather of a 10th grade public high school male student.
    We live in N.C. Been planning a snow skiing trip to Colorado (for the Grandson) and was discussed four months ago. The discussion was between a broken family. Mother and new husband, who just happens to be the Track Coach of the school my Grandson attends. Grandson is on the track team. Grandson has never won a track race. He does have some athletic ability, but a college scholarship is no where in sight. Due to snow, track meets were cancelled and rescheduled . Grandson was to be out of school Friday through Tuesday. This was agreed too four months ago with no argument. Exams are in progress. Grandson is a straight A student. Issue: Grandson was told by his Mother and step-dad, if he misses the Monday track practice and the Tuesday track meet, he would be kicked off the team. This is the first time the Grandson has ever missed a practice or meet. No official extracurricular activity policy in place through the athletic department. Lots of money and coordination has taken place in the last four months. Needless to say, Grandson is upset, biological Dad is upset and old Granddad is upset.
    I know my Grandson has responsibilities to the track team coaches and track team members. But not even a slight chance of ever kicking my Grandson under the bus. Him missing will not put points on the board nor win the event.
    How about hitting me back with your suggestions if you would please??

    1. highschoolsportsstuff

      There a quite a few layers to this. If I’m understanding correctly, the ski trip was planned for a period of time when there wasn’t a meet, but a meet was rescheduled on a date when he was already planning on being gone. So – my advice:

      First, go on the ski trip. He’ll remember that ski trip for much longer than he’ll remember anything that would happen during a week of a sophomore track season. Yes, getting kicked off the team for that would stink, but a skiing trip in Colorado for a kid from North Carolina isn’t a normal experience.

      Secondly, without knowing what other conversations may have taken place behind the scenes, if the consequence for missing this meet is getting kicked off the team (assuming that my brief summary earlier in this reply is correct), I think it’s worth your grandson’s time to visit with the AD about these extenuating circumstances. I can only speak for myself as an AD – and, again, I don’t know anything about the athletic dept. policies, procedures, past precedent, etc. or any conversations that may have been had between kid and coach – but we’d be more lenient with an absence that was planned and came into conflict because of weather. My guess is that dealing with weather-related reschedules are far more often for us, so this may just be a case of not having to deal with these situations very often. There’s obviously some family-related conflict that muddies the water, too, but it’s not my place to comment on that conflict.

      Good luck! Feel free to send me an email if you have other questions or if I can clarify my thoughts at all.

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