Recruit Lawsuit 

High school football makes its way to the Supreme Court

High school football makes its way to the Supreme Court

Sammy Baugh turned out to be too good to be the best football player my hometown ever produced. Slingin’ Sammy won the Heisman Trophy for Texas Christian, then became one of the biggest stars in the early years of the National Football League. But his formidable skills proved the downfall of his career as a quarterback for Temple High School.

Even when he was just a sophomore, everyone knew how talented Sammy was—including the coach of a rival school, 30 miles up the highway. The coach discovered that Sammy’s father worked for the Santa Fe Railroad. Having a few connections with the company himself, he managed to have Mr. Baugh transferred to another town 200 miles away—where his team would not have to defend against Sammy’s arm every season. A few years after the Baugh case, and after much more overt deviltry on the part of other schools and coaches, the state’s governing body for high school athletics enacted a rule designed to discourage such manipulations, especially the recruitment of players. Thenceforth, athletes transferring from one school district to another had to sit out a year before they could compete.

In a perverse way, it’s reassuring to learn that finagling the system is nothing new for high schools and coaches. In an era when parents hold back their kids a grade so they’ll grow bigger and stronger, and when high school football involves year-round training and preparation, we can perhaps feel better knowing that some folks besides those in our present wicked and worldly generation also took the sport a little too seriously.

What is disconcerting, however, is that high school football has become so important to so many that it now may grow beyond our power to regulate it without trespassing upon someone’s rights. That, essentially, is what is at stake in a local case—Brentwood Academy (BA)v. Tennessee Secondary School Athletic Association (TSSAA) and Ronnie Carter—being argued this week before the U.S. Supreme Court. The opposing parties agree on one thing: that the decision could ultimately have a profound effect on the future shape of high school athletics. Brentwood Academy is a football powerhouse (or, depending upon your point of view, a football factory). Though it has fewer than 600 students, the private school has captured a slew of state championships, earned national rankings, and produced more than its share of collegiate players.

It also has produced no small amount of jealousy and enmity among its rivals. Partly in reaction to BA’s perennial football dominance, and amid much gnashing of teeth, the TSSAA divided its members into separate divisions for public and private schools. Periodically, there have been allegations—never proven—that Brentwood Academy improperly induced athletes to enroll there instead of attending the local public school for which they were zoned.

It is difficult to filter out this history when reviewing the two-year probation the TSSAA levied on BA in 1997. Handing out its harshest sanction ever, the governing organization claimed that Brentwood Academy had violated its rules on recruiting; the school, for its part, maintained that it did nothing more than mail form letters to incoming ninth-grade boys inviting them to attend spring football practice.

Brentwood Academy sued, arguing that the TSSAA—an entity funded by public tax dollars—had violated its free speech rights and failed to provide the constitutional protection of due process while acting on behalf of the state. The school’s attorneys also claim that, if the high court finds in favor of the TSSAA, state athletic associations will be able to discriminate against women and minorities or against students and schools because of their religious beliefs. This line of reasoning is supported by the Southeast Law Institute and the National Women’s Law Center, who are among a raft of organizations that have filed friend-of-the-court briefs with the Supreme Court. The week before last, the Solicitor General’s office also weighed in on the side of Brentwood Academy.

The logic of the arguments seems to favor the school. But the broader implications of that logic are very troubling. Don’t swallow the fearmongering hype that, if the TSSAA wins this case, state interscholastic athletic associations would be free to discriminate against girls, minorities, or specific religious groups. Political realities and public outcry would make such a scenario more unlikely than a Rose Bowl berth for MTSU. And even if this alarmist nightmare became reality, a decision against Brentwood Academy could not conceivably be so broad, nor set such a precedent, that future courts would be hamstrung in stopping discrimination.

Far more likely is this scenario: If TSSAA loses, state associations will find it increasingly difficult to impose any type of regulatory standard on schools within their jurisdictions. If local school board X wants to permit students with D or F averages to participate in football, it could legally claim that any rule to the contrary by a state association discriminated against “academically challenged” students. If private schools Y and Z want to launch an all-out recruiting war (provided they offered no financial benefits to student-athletes), who could deter them without treading upon their rights of free speech and association?

Eventually, the authority of the NCAA, which governs the highest levels of intercollegiate athletics, may similarly crumble before the inexorable advance of legal precedent. The private and (theoretically) voluntary NCAA cannot be accused of acting on behalf of the state, as the TSSAA has been. Instead, in areas such as control of TV contracts, courts have found that the NCAA has functioned as a virtual monopoly, restraining the ability of member schools to operate their athletic businesses.

As the courts continue to erode the NCAA’s power, it’s only a matter of time—and shamelessness—before some university successfully challenges the NCAA’s restrictions on recruiting or academic standards, and before athletic departments are restrained in the pursuit of football superiority only by their own ambitions and consciences. High school athletics are in no danger of reaching that point anytime soon, but a ruling by the Supreme Court in favor of Brentwood Academy will move us in that direction.

That’s not to say that the school’s narrow argument is wrong. My guess is that the justices will determine, correctly, that the TSSAA has violated the school’s legal rights.

Maybe, however, we should examine some different questions. How did we ever allow our priorities to become so out of whack? How did we let our educational institutions place such a high priority on winning at amateur athletics that they will fight rules and restrictions they perceive to stand in their way? And how the hell did this become important enough for the highest court in the land?

How it looks from the La-Z-Boy

Titans 23, Jacksonville 13

One of these days, the slim margin for error dictated by their ball-control style, and their penchant for allowing bozos like Cincinnati to hang close, will catch up painfully with the Titans. If the “desperation theory” (the most desperate team usually wins) for predicting NFL games holds, that day could arrive Monday, when Tennessee hosts a proud but depleted Jacksonville team. Suddenly, the Jaguars, who lost to no one but the Titans a year ago, are staring at the once inconceivable possibility of a losing season. Look for them to play with the determination of a wounded animal. Even that, however, won’t be enough to overpower The Beast (Eddie George) or The Freak, provided the Titans don’t succumb to the overconfidence that afflicted the Jags last year.

Georgia 31, Vanderbilt 13

Alabama 19, Ole Miss 17

LSU 24, Kentucky 22

Florida 26, Auburn 20

South Carolina 24, Arkansas 17

Northwestern 35, Purdue 30

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