High School Basketball Player Ruled Eligible by Judge

Feb 15, 2019

By Caroline G. Fletcher & Michael S. Carroll
There’s nothing quite like the sound of basketball shoes squeaking on the hardwood, or the pure sound of a screwball hitting the catcher’s glove just right on a strikeout.
Before the pressure of competing for a national championship or playing professionally for money, there was the purity of playing in front of your high school classmates, taking instruction from a coach who doubles as the history teacher. But those four years of eligibility can fly by. In fact for Maori Davenport, one of the top female basketball players in the country, her senior season almost vanished.
Last summer, Davenport, the 15-ranked female basketball player in the country according to ESPN, led USA Basketball to a gold medal in the FIBA Under-18 Women’s Americas Championship in Mexico City, Mexico. Because participation in this league takes away from earning money from a summer job, USA Basketball issues stipends to athletes as reimbursement for travel and incidentals. In this case, USA Basketball issued a check in the amount of $857.20 to each player, including Davenport. This process is compliant with NCAA rules, ensuring no issue with eligibility for Davenport, who is set to be on basketball scholarship at Rutgers University next Fall. Part of the responsibility of USA Basketball is to contact the athletes’ respective state high school athletic associations to ensure that the reimbursement payment would not compromise the players’ eligibility for the remainder of their high school career. However, in this case USA Basketball failed to contact the Alabama High School Athletic Association (AHSAA), which led to the present dispute.
Rule 1, Section 8 of AHSAA Bylaws states that “a player who accepts payment or remuneration for playing on an athletic team is ineligible to play.” The rule states verbatim:
Only amateurs are eligible. An amateur is one who does not use his/her knowledge of athletics or athletic skill for gain. Amateur standing shall be further determined by the following standards:
A student is ineligible if he/she has received money as a prize, or has sold a prize received in a contest, or has bet on a contest in which he/she is a participant.
Professionalism is defined as accepting remuneration, directly or indirectly, for playing on athletic teams and in sports activities or for playing under an assumed name.
A student who accepts material or financial inducement from any source is ineligible.
Unknowingly, Davenport violated the AHSAA eligibility rule when she cashed the check provided to her by USA Basketball. In November 2018, USA Basketball rectified its mistake by informing Davenport, Charles Henderson High School, and the AHSAA, including Steve Savarese, the Executive Director, of the mistake. USA Basketball explained that because most of the players participating on Team USA are college players, that they failed to contact athletic associations in Missouri, Illinois, or Alabama regarding questioning whether the payments would jeopardize eligibility within those governing bodies. Furthermore, USA Basketball maintained full responsibility for the unintentional “clerical oversight.” With her last year of high school basketball in the balance, Davenport returned the money, self-reported the mistake to the AHSAA, and hoped it was enough to allow her eligibility in her senior season. It was not, as Davenport was ultimately suspended for the duration of her senior season by the AHSAA.
Davenport appealed the AHSAA ruling through the internal appeals process, but it was upheld, prompting the complaint, which sought a declaratory judgment and temporary restraining order (TRO), preliminary injunction, and permanent injunction enjoining defendants from holding Davenport ineligible and thus unable to compete through the conclusion of her senior year.
In the complaint, the Davenports alleged that the AHSAA have unlawfully caused Davenport to be disqualified from participation in high school sports and forfeit games in which she participated. The Davenports argue that the decisions of the AHSAA are a result of fraud, collusion, and/or arbitrariness and that they resulted from incomplete information and a misunderstanding of the facts surrounding the situation. The complaint cites previous examples of the AHSAA ruling players, coaches, and/or schools ineligible only to reduce or suspend those punishments based on arbitrary factors under a veil of secrecy. The complaint cites punishments that were reversed, rescinded, or otherwise invalidated for football, basketball, and volleyball teams with no evidence as to what those teams/schools did to warrant such leniency. As such, no guidance is provided by the AHSAA as to what a disqualified school, player, or coach can do in order to have their punishment revised or revoked, resulting in a lack of transparency and a decision-making process that is on its face arbitrary. The Davenports note that the mistaken funds received through the USA Basketball check were returned within 48 hours’ notice that there was an eligibility issue and argue that surely this demonstrated corrective action, warranting a reinstatement of eligibility. The complaint argues that the rule disqualifying Davenport is arbitrary on both its face and in its application, as it allows no distinction for an innocent mistake and holds only one punishment (total disqualification) regardless of amount. As further proof, the Davenports cite another high school player in the exact same circumstances as Davenport who is currently playing for her high school team.
Aside from the arbitrariness of the AHSAA’s rules and procedures, the complaint further alleges collusion, as the original decision to suspend Davenport was made by AHSAA Executive Director, Steve Savarese. Savarese allegedly colluded with the Board with respect to the appeals process. The Davenports claim Savarese and the AHSAA acted fraudulently, referencing the 1984 case AHSAA v. Rose, where the Supreme Court of Alabama ruled that a high school athlete was denied a fair and impartial hearing and thus denied due process. A high school football player was ruled ineligible based on a discrepancy involving the player’s parents’ residency in the relevant school district. AHSAA’s then-executive director attempted to influence the board’s deliberations of the player’s appeal, which prevented the player from receiving a fair and impartial hearing. The Supreme Court ruled in favor of the athlete.
The Circuit Court of Pike County has jurisdiction of this declaratory judgment action under Ala. R. Civ. P. 57 and Ala. Code § 6-6-222, et sep. (1975), and jurisdiction of this petition for injunctive relief under Ala. R. Civ. P. 65 and Ala. Code § 6-6-230 (1975). The Alabama Supreme Court has long held that a Circuit Court may overrule the decisions of the AHSAA “if the acts of the association are the result of fraud, lack of jurisdiction, collusion or arbitraries” and in those cases “the courts will intervene to protect an injured parties rights” as stated in Scott v. Kilpatrick 237 So. 2d 652 (1970). In Scott v. Kilpatrick, the Supreme Court of Alabama suggested that courts should not second guess AHSAA rulings unless there is clear and convincing evidence that such rulings result from “fraud”, “collusion” or “arbitrariness.” The Supreme Court of Alabama also maintains the AHSAA and its member “are in better position to promulgate rules governing participation in high school athletics than anyone else and are fully cognizant of the reasons underlying such rules.”
The complaint sought the following:
A declaratory judgment that the ruling against Davenport was invalid
An order declaring Davenport eligible
An injunction prohibiting Savarese and/or the AHSAA from disqualifying Davenport from participating in basketball during the 2018-19 season
An expedited hearing due to time-sensitive nature of the case
Pike County Circuit Judge Henry Reagan granted the emergency motion on Friday, January 11, 2019, allowing Davenport to play in a Friday night contest against Carroll High School. Although the Davenports “won” their case, it should be noted that a TRO is not a binding decision on the merits of the case. Under Alabama law, a TRO can be granted without the adverse party (here, the AHSAA and Savarese) to respond, as long as the plaintiff can make a good argument that immediate and irreparable injury would occur without the court granting the order. In this case, the Davenports were able to successfully argue that there would be no way for the court to “make up” for Davenport missing the remainder or her basketball season, even if she were to prevail later on the merits. Also of concern is Rule VI, Section 10 of the AHSAA Bylaws, the “school restitution rule.” This Bylaw stipulates that if an AHSAA-disqualified student is allowed to play due to a TRO and the order is later vacated, reversed, or otherwise made invalid, then the AHSAA can impose substantial penalties against the institution. It remains to be seen where this case will go from here.
Caroline George Fletcher is a Sport Management Ph.D. student in her third term at Troy University. Her research interests include intercollegiate athletics and female participation in sport. She is currently serving as the social media specialist at Delta State University. She lives in Cleveland, MS.
Michael S. Carroll is an Associate Professor of Sport Management at Troy University specializing in research related to sport law and risk management in sport and recreation. He has published over 30 articles and delivered over 50 presentations at professional conferences. He is currently serving as Past-President of the Sport and Recreation Law Association. He lives in Orlando, FL.


Articles in Current Issue