Court Declines To Step in After Players Are Suspended

Jul 14, 2006

A Massachusetts superior court has declined to grant a temporary restraining order in a case involving two high school hockey players, who claimed they were wrongly suspended by the Massachusetts Interscholastic Athletic Association.
Central to the court’s finding was its conclusion that the plaintiffs would not suffer “irreparable harm” if the TRO was denied, the potential damage to the association’s “system for ensuring compliance,” and the absence of “a substantial likelihood of success on the merits.”
The incident leading to the litigation occurred during a playoff hockey game on March 8, 2006. The plaintiffs Nicholas DelBuono and Kyle Murphy were suspended for the game; Nicholas for being the “third man in” in a fight and Kyle for “spearing” with his hockey stick.
The plaintiffs, who claim innocence, also argued that an MIAA official, who ordinarily would be available on the scene to entertain appeals from rulings such as the ones in this case, was absent from the rink at the time of the events in question.
The plaintiffs further maintained that in the aftermath of the ruling that their attorney,
Donald C. Keavany, Jr., sought unsuccessfully “to speak with an authority at the MIAA.
“Despite Attorney Keavany’s efforts to put the MIAA on notice, it did not appear for the hearing. Attorney Keavany, in addition to the papers filed for the temporary restraining order, presented the court with a DVD recording of the (game).”
The state court noted that in determining the viability of a temporary restraining order, it must evaluate: “1) whether a substantial threat exists that the moving party will suffer irreparable harm if the injunction is not granted; 2) whether the threatened injury to the moving party outweighs the threatened harm to the opposing party if the injunction is granted; and 3) whether there is a substantial likelihood that the moving party will succeed on the merits. Planned Parenthood League v. Operation Rescue, 406 Mass. 701, 710, 550 N.E.2d 1361 (1990); Packing Industries Group, Inc. v. Cheney, 380 Mass. 609, 616-18, 405 N.E.2d 106 (1980).”
It then opined about the benefit to “those who play high school sports,” who “are given an opportunity to strengthen their bodies and their minds in ways that may benefit them for years to come whether or not they continue to participate in sports activities.”
Nevertheless, the plaintiffs “will not suffer irreparable harm in the absence of a TRO. … No scholarships will be lost; no future college play will be forfeited; no more than the lost opportunity to finish out the season will be realized. The plaintiffs’ case is not based on the denial of any constitutional right for there is no such right to participate in high school athletics. See Mitchell v. Louisiana High School Athletic Ass’n, 430 F.2d 1155 (5th Cir. 1970); Caso v. New York State Public High School Athletic Ass’n, 78 A.D.2d 41, 46-47, 434 N.Y.S.2d 60 (1980). There is no allegation here that the plaintiffs’ children have been excluded from participation in sports programs due to their race, religion, background or beliefs. Because this is not a case where irreparable harm has been shown, this court may not issue a temporary restraining order.
“Second, this court is not persuaded that, when balancing the harms, the scales tip in the favor of Nicholas and Kyle. The complaint alleges that in enjoining the MIAA’s decision, the status quo would be maintained. This assertion overlooks the fact that Nicholas and Kyle were penalized for not playing by the rules on the basis of a judgment made by a duly authorized sports official who was present and made observations that led him to impose the disqualification penalty. On the other hand, the intervention of this court at this stage may seriously impair the integrity of the defendant’s system for ensuring compliance with the rules of the various sports that it administers and oversees.”
The judge also expressed concern that by ruling for the plaintiffs, it might open the proverbial Pandora’s Box. “If this court were to entertain lawsuits from high school-age students grounded on disagreements over decisions made by referees during sports contests, the floodgates would open to a new wave of litigation that might severely damage the ability of schools to maintain competitive sports programs,” it wrote.
“Lastly, this court, for the reasons set forth above, does not foresee a substantial likelihood of success on the merits.
“While it is all but assured that Nicholas and Kyle will be forever disappointed in both the disqualification from playing and this court’s refusal to enjoin such, there is a valuable lesson to be learned. Playing by the rules in a high school athletic contest sometimes means accepting the unfortunate consequences of a referee’s judgment or decision that most people might agree was wrong.”
Nicholas DelBuono, by his father and next friend Gary DelBuono et al. n1 v. Massachusetts Interscholastic Athletic Association; Super.Ct.Mass. at Worcester; Opinion No.: 93492, Docket Number: 06-00481; 2006 Mass. Super. LEXIS 209; 3/13/06


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