Sports Law Blog
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Thursday, March 08, 2007
Alfred Yen posts on Concurring Opinions about a case in Massachusetts in which a high school freshman violated the state's rule that students can play only one sport per season by playing on both the hockey and swim teams. The student was declared ineligible for the season (in both sports) and the school forfeited all the games in which she played.
Professor Yen raises two issues on this: 1) The seeming harshness of the penalty (it is the same penalty as if the student had accepted money for playing) and 2) The questionable wisdom of the rule. I want to consider the second.
According to the post, the state defends the rule as intended to protect athletes from injury and to ensure they have adequate time for academics. But the rule is so under-inclusive that one wonders whether it could be said to rationally further those asserted interests (as all legal rules must do at a minimum).
Professor Yen notes that there is no prohibition on playing a sport and simultaneously participating in another, non-athletic time-consuming extracurricular activity (school play, band, student newspaper, chorus, debate team, pick your geekdom). Indeed, there is nothing (other than the laws of physics and the space-time continuum) to stop a student from playing a sport and participating in all those other activities. And there is nothing (again besides the laws of physics) to stop a non-athlete from participating in every extra-curricular under the sun. So there seem to be too many other things that are allowed to take-up one-sport-athletes time to justify the rule.
As for the increased likelihood of getting hurt playing multiple sports: There is no prohibition on playing a sport for a school team while also pursuing another sport outside the school context, although risk of injury (and loss of academic time) would be identical. For example, this student could play hockey for the school and be a competitive figure skater. Or she could have played hockey for the school and swam for a club team. So again, the rule does not prohibit something that poses the identical risk to the students' well-being.
There is a tendency in schools to single-out athletics for special regulation beyond that for other activities--schools got their foot in the door for drug-testing by going after athletes. And Massachuseets apparently regulates only athletics, not activities more broadly. Even so, I do not see how this rule is justified in furtherance of the stated interests, given the numerous harms the rule leaves unregulated.
Updated: In an e-mail exchange, Professor Yen suggests that the real reason for the rule is to prevent one great athlete from dominating in a bunch of different sports. In the Comments to this post, Anonymous (one of them) offers a different version of that: It is a way to prevent one athlete from taking spots away from her other classmates to maximize the number of people able to participate in sports.
But either or both rationales are even less legitimate than the avoid injury/enhance academics rationales that have been offered. If one student is both the best hockey player and the best swimmer (both winter sports), she should not be prohibited from seeking to maximize her gifts in both. After all, we do not impose a similar limitation where the best debater in the school is also the best actor in the school. And we want to encourage participation in debate or drama as much as participation in sports, no?
Update # 2: If the MIAA is serious about any of these rationales (maximizing diverse participation; avoiding injury; ensuring time for academics), the rule should not be one-sport-per-season, but one (maybe two) sports per year. If there is a risk of injury from a student playing multiple sports, that is true whether those sports are played concurrently or in different seasons (I still lament that my high school's hopes for a second-straight state basketball championship were dashed when our best player, also the star quarterback, was injured in the last football game of the season). So we are back to the rule being so under-inclusive as to render its logic questionable.