Line Mountain case could change landscape
You do not have a constitutional right to play basketball.
Now, that may seem obvious. There is, as far as I know, not an amendment sandwiched in between free speech and powers reserved to the states that covers ribbed, tacky balls with inflatable inner bladders, or the bouncing thereof.
Still, it took a federal court ruling to make it clear. And it happened in our own back yard a little more than a decade ago.
That case should be in the minds of officials from Line Mountain School District in Northumberland County – and the PIAA itself – as the same federal court in Williamsport hears a challenge to Line Mountain’s policy that bars girls from the school’s wrestling team.
Think this case doesn’t have long-term impact on every scholastic sports program in the state? Think again.
First, a bit of history: In 1975, the state’s Commonwealth Court told the PIAA that its practice of banning female athletes from participation in male sports was unconstitutional. This decision, which voided an entire section of PIAA rules, has been cited as the justification for numerous policies by the sports oversight body since then.
This year, the agency went back to the court and asked for an updated ruling, fueled by complaints from western Pennsylvania parents unhappy because their daughters – field hockey players, but volleyball and other sports have faced similar issues – were themselves victims because boys were on opponents’ teams.
And this week, a family living in the Line Mountain district filed suit because their daughter was denied a spot on the wrestling roster.
To be fair, these are separate issues – while there has been much angst over the competitive advantage (real or perceived) of boys playing girls sports, no one has actually complained that girls on the football or wrestling team actually give a school an edge.
But both would be impacted by a definitive decision in a federal case of this nature. If the court decides that a girl must be allowed on a boys team, then it can’t very well say a boy is not allowed on a girls team – to do so would be discriminatory on its face.
Schools – who are in the PIAA through membership – asked the agency’s leadership to address the gender issue. Going back to the court that issued the 1975 ruling was a step – but not necessarily a helpful one. The judge who heard the case basically told the PIAA to make a rule change and see if someone challenges it.
But federal courts supersede state courts, so a favorable ruling for the parents in the Line Mountain case would have to be overturned, possibly at the Supreme Court level.
And that brings us back to 2002, and the case against Midd-West. A student who lived in the district but had never been enrolled at Middleburg High School had been allowed, with the district’s approval, to play basketball prior to reaching the age of varsity. At that point – before the legislature expanded eligibility rules – the school district had the right to accept or decline participation by most students not actually in the building.
After granting an exception to its non-participation policy in junior high, the board said no. And so her parents filed suit, claiming due process and civil rights (equal rights and freedom of association) violations.
The due process claim was dismissed because there is no property interest in sports participation, and the equal protection claim because the status of the student was not a protected class. It is the latter where the Third Circuit judges make the strongest and most important statement in their opinion:
“The (plaintiffs) argue that ‘educational choices of the type and nature at issue in this matter are within the scope of constitutionally protected associations and that [the School District’s] actions interfere with or chill those rights as exercised by the … (student) and her family.’ … Here the regulation in question – the requirements placed upon students who wish to participate in interscholastic basketball – does not impact the (plaintiffs’) ability to educate their daughter in the manner they choose. At best, the regulation’s impact on the (plaintiffs’) right to rear (their child) is attenuated.”
A footnote adds: “There is no constitutionally protected right to play sports.”
That’s the line the PIAA needs to quote in its friend-of-the-court brief, and the one Line Mountain needs to wave on a flag in front of the judge. Otherwise, it’s your daughter who may pay the price when her field hockey opponent is built like a linebacker, or her volleyball counterpart can overreach the net and spike a ball so hard it cracks a cheekbone.
And there will be nothing you or the PIAA can do to stop it.
Jeff Fishbein is sports editor of The Sentinel. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.