Students Don't Have Constitutional Right to Participate in Sports
John T. Wolohan
With the value of an athletic scholarship rising with the cost of tuition, the amount of time and money some parents are willing to devote to their children's athletic development — particularly in families where a scholarship is the only affordable route to attending college — is almost understandable. As a result, parents may be more likely to go to court to challenge any decision or action by a coach or school that might diminish the chance of a scholarship.
Fortunately for athletics administrators, while parents might like to believe otherwise, students do not have a constitutionally protected right to participate in high school sports. In the vast majority of cases, the courts have found no legal right to participate in interscholastic athletics, even for athletes good enough to earn athletic scholarships. Participation in athletics, the courts have held, is a privilege only. Therefore, school and athletics administrators have every right to suspend or bar athletes from competing on teams for any number of reasons, including alcohol and drug use.
That said, school and athletics administrators should nonetheless follow proper procedure when suspending or banning an athlete from sports. In particular, prior to meting out a suspension, proper due process requires that the athlete be given oral and written notice of the charges against him or her and, if he or she denies them, an explanation of the evidence the authorities have. The student should then be given an opportunity to refute the allegations against him or her to an impartial decision-maker — and, if necessary, the opportunity for an appeal.
At one Pennsylvania high school, being drunk and found carrying pot at a high school football game netted an underage student a 10-day suspension from school — and an even longer one from a school sports team. After 17-year-old Eric Burgey of Palmer Township was busted on Sept. 12, a school board committee recommended a 45-day ban from all extracurricular activities, which would have allowed Burgey, a member of the Easton Area High School wrestling team, to return to practice Dec. 9 and competition after Dec. 28. But on Nov. 20, the full school board barred him for the entire year, leading Burgey and his parents to sue the school district, saying that the full-year ban was unfair and would damage his prospects of earning a college wrestling scholarship, according to a report in the Morning Call of Allentown. On Dec. 11, just prior to a hearing on Burgey's request for an injunction that was to be held in Northampton County Court, the family decided to abandon its lawsuit.
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