A LEGAL PERSPECTIVE CONCERNING SOUTH CAROLINA
HIGH SCHOOL LEAGUE'S SUSPENSION OF
NORTHWESTERN AND MARLBORO COUNTY HIGH SCHOOLS
Yesterday's ruling by the South Carolina High School League (SCHSL) expelling Northwestern and Marlboro County from this year's football playoffs has sparked quite a debate. At the forefront of the discussion, is the member school's right to take legal action against the SCHSL. Failing that, does an individual player of an excluded team have the right to bring an action for inclusion? In answering these intriguing questions, the composition, history and purpose of the South Carolina High School League must be examined.
The SCHSL was originally formed as the Inter-High School Athletic and Oratorical Association in 1913 through the assistance of the University of South Carolina. After reorganizing in 1921, the Inter-High School Athletic and Oratorical Association took its current name, the South Carolina High School League. Though the name has changed over the years, the primary purpose of the League has remained constant-that is the "promotion and control of interscholastic competition in South Carolina." More important, since the creation of the League in 1913, membership has always been voluntary. As stated in Article II of the Constitution of the High School League the "purpose of the League, a voluntary organization, is to formulate and maintain policies that will safeguard the education values of interscholastic competition, to cultivate the high ideals of sportsmanship . . . and to promote uniformity of standards in all interscholastic competition. [Emphasis Added].
The fact that member schools voluntarily join the SCHSL is quite significant. When joining the SCHSL as a voluntary member, the member school agrees to be governed by a certain set of rules and regulations as established by the SCHSL through its Constitution and its governing body. The member school also agrees, pursuant to the League's Constitution, that from time to time the League may take appropriate action against its member schools for actions that the SCHSL finds contrary to the principals and purpose of the League. Actions may be appealed to the League in the manner set forth by the League's Constitution. At anytime that a member school decides that it no longer wants to play or be governed by the rules established by the organization that it voluntarily joined, that member school may exercise its right to leave the organization and end its association with the League. In this fashion, the SCHSL operates like the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA), a voluntary organization of collegiate schools.
As a voluntary member of the SCHSL, the member school has no grounds or basis to sue the League simply because the League rules in a manner it dislikes as a member. In order to file a suit in the State of South Carolina, whether it be for an automobile accident or for a breach of contract, a litigant must be able to assert what is called a legal cause of action. A "cause of action" is simply the fact or facts which give a person a right to judicial redress or relief against another. Black's Law Dictionary 221 (6th ed. 1990). The right to legal redress in our courts is established either by statute, as in the case of automobile lemon laws, or by case law, as in the case of simple negligence.
In Northwestern and Marlboro County's case, there is no case law or statutory cause of action that could be presented by either member school affording the right of judicial redress against the organization upon which they voluntarily subjected themselves. The two member schools are voluntary members of the League. As such, the League sets outs rules and regulation which as members, the schools agreed to abide and the school approves as members of the League. The schools agreed that should these rules not be adhered to, punishment or expulsion could result. The League felt that these members violated those rules and sought to address the situation in a manner it deemed fit. As voluntary members, the only redress available to the member schools is to voluntarily leave the League just as they voluntarily joined.
A similar analogy would be a member of a private country club being suspended from the club due to the member's abusive and rude behavior. The only recourse for the member is to resign his membership of the club. There is no legal recourse afforded to a member of a private club in a dispute over the implementation of the rules of the club he voluntarily joined. The courts simply will not interject itself in disputes among people who voluntary associate.
The individual player's case is even more simplistic. A high school student can only compete on a team offered by the school in which he attends. He cannot play as an individual, since all high school sports are team sports. Moreover, a player cannot select which school he plays for as he may in college. As such, it only follows that in order to compete in a high school athletics, the individual's school must be eligible to compete. A student whose school does not offer football, for example, has no more right to play in the football playoff as does a student/athlete whose team does not qualify for the competition rather the exclusion be due to performance or punishment.
Being a student at the member school gives the student/athlete the ability to play the sport. The member school's voluntary membership in the SCHSL gives the team the ability to compete against other SCHSL members. Absent the team, there is no ability to play the sport. Here, Marlboro County and Northwestern cannot play in the football playoff; therefore its student/athletes cannot participate. This is no different that the student/athletes of the many schools whose teams failed to win enough games to qualify. Supposing an individual athlete could prove his right to play. He still could not participate without the rest of the team. Basically, it is the whole or it is the none.
Others have argued that the SCHSL did not follow the state's Freedom of Information Act when the appeal case was heard this Monday. The South Carolina Supreme Court has ruled that the FOIA is not an absolute when it concerns the welfare and actions of minor children. The courts in our state have the right to seal juvenile records and schools have the right and duty to protect children in their ward even in our high schools and for those students above the majority age of 18.
The SCHSL could easily argue with much success that the actions of minor aged students were to be discussed in this hearing and the rights to the children's privacy laws outweighs the need and right for the press to disseminate this information to the public. The SCHSL was correct in it's decision to protect the welfare of it's student athletes over the press' and public's right to know. The South Carolina and US Supreme Court have held this to be true in multiple instances.
Gary A. Pickren, Esq.
Mr. Pickren is a partner in the Law Firm of Montgomery, Patterson, Potts & Willard, LLP, in Columbia, SC.
He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.