As a general rule, the courts will not get involved in the internal decision-making process of pri-vate athletic associations.

'CREW' CUTs Greensburg Junior High School's haircut policy was intended to create a sense of unity among teammates. (Image © Jeff Chevrier/istockphoto.com)

As a general rule, the courts will not get involved in the internal decision-making process of private athletic associations. The rationale behind this rule is that it is not the responsibility of the courts to inquire into the expediency, practicability or wisdom of the bylaws and regulations of voluntary organizations - regardless of how silly those bylaws may seem.

Like every rule, however, there are some exceptions. If the rule is applied in an arbitrary and capricious manner or is an abuse of discretion, the courts will review the internal decisions under the Due Process Clause. Such was the case in Hayden v. Greensburg Community School Corporation [2013 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 34494].

BOY WITH LONG HAIR
In Fall 2010, Melissa Hayden's son, A.H., tried out for the Greensburg (Ind.) Junior High School's eighth- grade boys' basketball team. At that time, the Greensburg Community School Corporation had a mandatory haircut policy in place that required members of the middle and high school boys' basketball teams to wear their hair above their ears and collar. Established by high school varsity head coach Stacy Meyer, pursuant to School Board Policy 5511, the rule fell under the "Dress and Grooming" category and designated each school's principal as the arbiter of student appearance.

Unhappy that her son was forced to choose between cutting his hair and playing basketball, Melissa Hayden brought her concerns to Meyer, who explained that the purpose of the haircut policy was to promote an image of clean-cut boys, as well as to institute uniformity for the sake of team unity. Therefore, he would not exempt A.H. from the policy.

Hayden next approached Dave Strouse, Greensburg Junior High School's principal, who informed her that he supported the policy and, like Meyer, would not excuse A.H. from it. So the mother finally took her grievance to Tom Hunter, superintendent of Greensburg Community Schools. He, too, was unwilling to exempt A.H. With no other recourse, Hayden requested a hearing before the school board, which was subsequently denied.

KICKED OFF TEAM
After A.H. made the basketball team, coaches informed all players that anyone who did not comply with the haircut policy would be removed from the team. When A.H. arrived at practice the next day without a haircut, he and another teammate in violation of the policy were dismissed.

Claiming that the school's mandatory haircut policy infringed on A.H.'s fundamental right - protected by the U.S. Constitution - to wear the hairstyle of his choice and was in violation of his procedural and substantive due process rights, A.H.'s parents filed a lawsuit in United States District Court for the Southern District of Indiana. They alleged that the school board, coach, principal and superintendent denied A.H. procedural due process prior to A.H.'s removal from the basketball team in the form of a hearing or a meeting as prescribed by the Greensburg Administrative Guidelines.

DUE PROCESS GIVEN
In examining the due process claim, the court initially looked at the language of the Fourteenth Amendment, which provides that "[n]o State shall ... deprive any person of life, liberty or property, without due process of law." Therefore, the court held, in order to find a due process claim, A.H.'s parents must first show that A.H. was deprived of "life, liberty or property" interests by not being provided adequate due process of law or procedural fairness.

Citing Indiana High School Association v. Watson [938 N.E.2d 672 (Ind. 2010)], which held that a student has no constitutional right to participate in interscholastic athletics, the court rejected the argument that A.H. had a constitutionally recognized property interest in participating in extracurricular sports.

As for whether A.H. had a protectable liberty interest in the hairstyle of his choice, the court noted that a citizen's choice of hairstyle is an element of liberty protected by the Fourteenth Amendment. However, the court also found that, in A.H.'s case, the issue was whether that constitutional protection applies equally to a public school student who wishes to play interscholastic sports. In ruling that it did not, the court noted that public schools may lawfully enact and enforce dress and grooming policies. Moreover, the court held that schools may condition participation in interscholastic sports upon a degree of regulation even higher than that imposed on students generally.

Therefore, the court concluded, A.H. did not have a protectable liberty interest to wear the hairstyle of his choice, and if he wanted to participate in interscholastic sports at Greensburg Junior High, he was subject to reasonable regulations - including the school's haircut policy.

In addition, the court ruled that even if A.H's liberty interest had been violated, he had received adequate due process. In determining what process is due, the court considered three factors: "1) the private interest affected by the official action; 2) the risk of erroneous deprivation of such interest through the procedures used and the probable value, if any, of additional procedural protections; and 3) the government's interest in maintaining the current procedures."

Based on those factors, the court concluded that the three separate meetings Melissa Hayden had with Meyer, Strouse and Hunter before Meyer dismissed A.H. from the basketball team were adequate enough to ensure procedural fairness, and that additional procedural protections would have been of little value.

In conclusion, the court found that A.H.'s private interest in wearing a hairstyle prohibited by the haircut policy did not outweigh the interest of the school.

TWO TAKEAWAYS
While this case may seem silly - and certainly not worth turning into a federal case - it still offers athletic administrators two valuable takeaways.

First, the case once again supports the general rule that participation in interscholastic sports falls outside the Due Process Clauses found in the Fifth and Fourteenth Amendments. In particular, while students may have a constitutionally protected property right in their education, and the State may not withdraw that right absent fundamental due process, they are not entitled to the same property interest in participating in sports. While recognizing the importance of participation in interscholastic sports, the courts have ruled repeatedly that the right to participate in interscholastic athletics does not rise to the level of the kinds of fundamental rights and liberties protected by due process. (It should be noted, however, that some jurisdictions have found participation in high school athletics to be a constitutionally protected right and not a privilege.)

Second, to be safe, whenever athletic administrators enforce eligibility and other administrative rules against student-athletes, they should ensure that the individual receives adequate due process, based on the aforementioned three factors. Therefore, athletic administrators should, at a minimum, provide a student-athlete and his or her parents the opportunity to meet with the coach and school principal to discuss the penalties handed down. If the issue is more serious, athlete and parents should then have an opportunity to appeal adverse decisions to the school board or athletic board.