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Thursday, January 14, 2010
Procedural Flaws in High School Transfer Decisions

I was forwarded a wonderful September, 2009 decision by an Indiana Appeals Court this week, Watson v. Indiana High School Athletic Association. Valerie Watson, a single mother supporting three children and one grandchild, decided to move from Elkhart to South Bend, IN, after facing salary reductions and foreclosure on her home. The RV industry -- a major employer in Elkhart -- is in shambles, and Ms. Watson was unable to find a home to rent and wanted the assistance of relatives in South Bend in caring for her children. Her daughter, six-foot-two-inch tall Jasmine sought to play basketball at her new school in South Bend, but the IHSAA found the transfer occured "primarily for athletic reasons" and declared her ineligible.

The IHSAA's evidence on this point was a bit flimsy, consisting of what the court viewed as unsubstantiated double hearsay:
For example, the IHSAA relied on Coach Fielstra‘s statements that another basketball coach from a different school told Fielstra that one of Jasmine‘s grandmothers told him (the other coach) that the family was looking for another school for Jasmine because she was not getting the ball enough at Elkhart Memorial.
Watson sought and successfully obtained a preliminary injunction allowing her to play basketball at her new school, with the court finding the IHSAA to have acted in an arbitrary and capricious manner. The Appellate court, in the linked decision, affirmed that injunction. The court includes an interesting discussion of the mootness issue present in so many eligibility-centered lawsuits. By the time it rendered its decision this fall, Jasmine had graduated from high school (and has begun what looks to be a promising career at the University of Massachusetts). The court noted that the IHSAA had filed a counter-claim for attorney fees against Watson, so success for the IHSAA on appeal could have significant monetary implications should the Association have the gall to try to collect its fees from a cash-strapped single mother. The court also opined that transfers for financial pressures were likely to be a recurring problem, and that high school athletics are a matter of "great public interest."

Although many high school athletic associations are concerned about athlete transfers, in this case the association seems to have ignored the family's circumstances and proceeded in a rather harsh fashion.


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