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Thursday, March 08, 2007
One-Sport Only

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.


Are you really asserting this rule has no rational basis? I think the injury justification surely qualifies as one. Although the school does not bar simultaneously playing in a non-school sport, that part of the rule is easily justified by a concern that it would be overstepping the bounds of the school board's authority and an unjustified intrusion into parental control to regulate what students do in non-school sponsored activities.

Anonymous Anonymous -- 3/08/2007 5:01 PM  

I am not concluding it lacks a rational basis; I am saying that the rule is so under-inclusive in service of the stated interested that I am questioning its justification. And while I do not think the school could prohibit a student from participating in out-of-school sports, it could prohibit students who participate in out-of-school sports from playing on school teams.

Blogger Howard Wasserman -- 3/08/2007 6:19 PM  

Sports had been on my mind since i came to this world. it is also in my blood because my father is sporty and i know that before he started Dating my mom, sports was already on his mind.

I also love to venture in Extreme Games because i found it very challenging. Aside from that, pets can also be an alternative. Now i have tips if you ould like to venture Outdoor Activities like me. Sports is the best way to enjoy aside from blogging .

Blogger teody -- 3/08/2007 9:07 PM  


Everything meets the rational basis test. Maybe it's time for a new standard when something defies logic, like this rule. Playing multiple sports at school is not a new phenomenon. Is there some new development in safety now that shows that we just had it wrong for all of these years? So a kid that just plays football is going to study harder during basketball season because he can't play basketball?

Here's another one for you, in a non-sports context. A couple of months ago, a school implemented a complete ban on talking during lunch. The school justified the ban because a kid choked on some food. Rational basis? -- you bet. Logical? -- no way because kids (including adults) have been choking on food ever since people started eating food, not to mention the socialization benefits from engaging in conversation during meals. The more logical thing to do would be to teach kids not to talk with their mouths full.

Blogger Rick Karcher -- 3/09/2007 8:41 AM  

Prof. Karcher:

I agree the no-talking rule is silly. But if a majority of the people in the jurisdiction in question want the rule, then what's the problem? And if they don't, why should the answer to that principal-agent problem be judicial review?

I think the no two-sport rule can also be justified on another ground: sports are an important extracurricular in which all students should be encouraged to participate. The no-double-particpation rule furthers this goal by preventing star athletes from gobbling up multiple spots.

Anonymous Anonymous -- 3/09/2007 9:52 AM  

I'm not following the principal-agent reference. But in any event, what makes you say that a majority of the people in the jurisdiction want the rule?

Blogger Rick Karcher -- 3/09/2007 2:54 PM  

Prof. Karcher:

The people in the jurisdiction are the "principals" and the school board their "agents." If a majority of the people support the rule, then the system is working as it should. To the extent that the school board is advancing its own policy preferences rather than those of its principals, then there is a principal-agent problem.

The premise of your argument is that judicial review is a good way to monitor this potential principal-agent problem. What is the basis of that premise? Why would judges be better suited to determining whether a rule is good or bad than the school board?

Prof. Wasserman:

I think you've now moved far away from thinking in rational basis terms. Your critique of my rationale is based purely on your opinion that students "should" be able to participate in two sports and that participation in sports is no different than any other extracurricular. Surely it's rational to think that sports might be the most important because of its special characteristics and thus warrants special treatment. Just because you think that argument is silly does not make it irrational. Or do you agree with Prof. Karcher's apparent embrace of Lochner v. New York?

Anonymous Anonymous -- 3/10/2007 8:12 AM  


Let's back up for a second. You started by saying that the one-sport rule meets the rational basis test. I replied that everything meets that test, and that maybe it's time for a new test when something defies logic, which I think this rule does. I also noted another rule (the no talking at lunch rule) that defies logic and you also agree that it defies logic because you said it's a "silly" rule. Presumably you and I also agree that the no talking at lunch rule satisfies the rational basis test. So, the question is why should silly rules govern our society?

I also asked you how you know that a majority of the people support the one sport rule. In your response, you just assume that a majority of the people support it because otherwise the system wouldn't be working as it should. So you didn't answer the question. There's also another assumption you're making --that the system is working as it should. What if you are wrong on both assumptions?

Blogger Rick Karcher -- 3/10/2007 11:10 AM  

Prof. Karcher:

I never said a majority of people support the rule. I said IF a majority supports then rule then there's no problem. And IF a majority doesn't, judicial review is not the solution.

While you and I agree that the no-talking rule is silly, obviously a majority of the school board disagrees, or else the rule would never have been enacted. Therefore, what standard, exactly, should a court apply in reviewing the rule? The rational basis test protects democratic self-governance. Your proposed standard, which you have not articulated, would empower judges to conduct general reasonableness review of all laws. This is the standard embraced in Lochner and rejected in Nebbia, West Coast Hotel, and Williamson v. Lee Optical. It should stay buried.

As an aside, saying something is silly is not the same as saying it is illogical. The merits of the no-talking rule depend entirely on weighing the costs of not allowing students to talk with the benefits of avoiding a few incidents of choking. The idea that this balance can somehow be answered as a matter of pure "logic" is nonsense. Any answer necessarily depends on normative judgments about risk-taking and the value of speech, not inescapable logic.

Anonymous Anonymous -- 3/10/2007 1:08 PM  


Good points, but I don't think it's as complicated as you make it out to be. I don't care what you want to call these rules: "illogical," "silly," or "devoid of common sense". We have become a "rule happy" society in which the response to any problem is to quickly enact some rule that attempts to get rid of the problem in the most convenient manner, and in the process there is no consideration whatsoever as to the impact the rule has on the interest of the people who are directly affected by it.

There are local govt. agencies and school boards, state and local athletic associations, school principals, etc., enacting rules and implementing policies that, quite frankly, a majority of the people don't even know are being enacted and if they did know about it, could care less. The only people who do care are the small number of people who are directly affected by these rules, i.e. kids who want to play two sports and can't, or the kids who can't talk at lunch (and I have a whole list of "illogical" rules that have been enacted lately). The people making these rules do not ask the people who are directly affected and the rational basis test doesn't even require their interests to be considered. If the rational basis test authorizes boards to abuse their power and make rules that advance their own self interests and agendas, then, yes, I think we need a new standard. I'm not a constitutional law expert by any means, but maybe that standard would consist of a balancing test in which the interest of the state is weighed against the interest of the individuals directly affected by the rule.

Blogger Rick Karcher -- 3/10/2007 5:54 PM  

I am not questioning the constitutional validity of the rule, which I concede, given the rational-basis standard. I am arguing that the rule is stupid and bad policy, based on its under-inclusiveness and my view (apparently not shared by the MIAA or by Anonymous) that sports are not so different from other extra-curricular activities.

Blogger Howard Wasserman -- 3/11/2007 1:08 PM  

Prof. Wasserman:

I think you're assessing underinclusiveness in the abstract. A legislature (or a school board as the case may be) addresses the problems it sees. If the problem is students spending too much time on sports and not other extracurriculars, then it's sensible that the rule applies only to sports. A rule that addresses actual problems is not underinclusiveness merely because it does not address every hypothetical.

Anonymous Anonymous -- 3/11/2007 5:31 PM  


True, if there truly were evidence that students were spending too much time on sports (at the expense of other things and with some negative consequences) but no evidence of similar over-extension as to other activities. And I tend to doubt that there is evidence showing that, although I obviously cannot prove the point.

More likely, sport is just higher-profile, so administrators went after it, without thinking about other, similar activities. And I do not consider that wise or beneficial rulemaking.

Blogger Howard Wasserman -- 3/12/2007 4:25 PM  

I would even go so far as to say that the evidence is actually irrelevant on this one. Why should some government body tell parents how many sports is too much for their own kid to play? At what point do we say that the government shouldn't be making decisions about how to raise our own kids?

Blogger Rick Karcher -- 3/12/2007 9:36 PM  

Prof. Karcher:

Technically this rule does not tell parents how many sports their children can play. The rule only covers how many school sports students can participate in. As I pointed out earlier, part of the justification for limiting the rule to only school sports is that it such a rule is less intrusive into parental rights.

Anonymous Anonymous -- 3/13/2007 8:22 AM  

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