By Michael A. Ross, MS
S.B. (Plaintiff) is a quarterback for the Chatfield High School varsity football team. He sought a temporary restraining order or preliminary injunction to enjoin the Defendant, Minnesota State High School League (MSHSL), from enforcing a single-game suspension that would result in him being ineligible to participate in the Minnesota Class AA State Championship football game held on November 26, 2021.
It should be noted the complaint was filed on November 23, 2021. S.B. was ejected from the semi-final football game held on November 18, 2021, after receiving two unsportsmanlike conduct penalties. As a result of his ejection from the semi-final game, S.B. would be ineligible and suspended from participation in the following game per MSHSL’s bylaws (i.e., the state championship game).
S.B. disputed the unsportsmanlike conduct calls by stating he was not the instigator in the actions warranting misconduct penalties, but his conduct specific to the second call was a reaction to the twisting of his ankle and to protect his own safety. The current bylaws and verbiage within the MSHSL prohibit him from appealing the penalties resulting in the suspension being upheld. The aforementioned and specific bylaw being referenced is Bylaw 407.1, which states, “protests against decisions of contest officials will not be honored,” that “the decisions of contests officials are final,” and that “video recordings will not be used to overrule an official’s decision or change the outcome of the game, meet, or contest.”
The complaint asserts and relies on a single claim against the MSHSL under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 insisting a violation of S.B.’s due process rights protected and ensured by the Fourteenth Amendment. Utilizing this assertion, S.B. claims that the MSHSL’s bylaws bar him from challenging the unsportsmanlike conduct penalties against him and the automatic game suspension resulting from said penalties. S.B. continues by insisting that the enforcement of the aforementioned bylaws set forth by the MSHSL deprived him of a property interest in the participation in interscholastic varsity athletics without due process of law. S.B. sought a temporary restraining order (TRO) and preliminary injunction to enjoin the MSHSL from upholding his suspension from the state championship game until a later date in which the misconduct penalties and automatic suspension could be reviewed by a neutral decisionmaker for further evaluation.
CASE ANAYLSIS AND KEY FACTORS
It should be noted that a TRO or preliminary injunction is recognized as an extraordinary remedy in which the party bringing forth the claim bears the burden of establishing its appropriateness and acceptable application. To determine if a TRO or preliminary injunction should be issued, a court considers four pertinent factors:
(1) The threat of irreparable harm to the movant in the absence of relief; (2) the balance between the harm alleged and the harm that the relief may cause the non-moving party; (3) the movant’s likelihood of success on the merits; and (4) the public interest.
It is also noted that the likelihood of success on the merits do not need to be established or calculated with mathematical precision. The case furthers this notion and understanding by stating “at base, the question is whether the balance of equities so favors the movant that justice requires the court to intervene to preserve the status quo until the merits are determined.”
The court first considers the status quo issue at hand. The court reasons that S.B.’s request to have his eligibility reinstated until the merits of his claim can be reevaluated at a later date would disrupt the status quo. The purpose of the TRO is to preserve the status quo until the merits can be determined and granting a TRO under the circumstances requested by S.B. would be counterproductive to what the intended purpose is. Under these circumstances, injunctive relief is deemed not appropriate. S.B. would submit a counter claim following the determination of the court in regard to the status quo ruling, but this claim held no weight and was discarded with the acknowledgement that it would not advance S.B.’s case.
In addition to disturbing the status quo, the aforementioned pertinent factors warranting consideration before a TRO could be issued were taken into consideration, and the result of such considerations and analysis will be presented below.
S.B.’s singular claim against the MSHSL asserts his Fourteenth Amendment due process rights have been violated. As stated in the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment, no state actor may deprive a person of life, liberty, or property, without the due process of law. By taking this approach, S.B. must prove the following criteria: (1) he has life, liberty, or property interest protected by the Due Process Clause, (2) MSHSL deprived him of that interest, and (3) MSHSL did not afford him adequate procedural rights. S.B. reasons that he has a constitutionally protected right to participate in interscholastic athletic opportunities, and that his misconduct penalties and subsequent suspension exist as a property right that was taken from him without adequate process. Relying on former precedent, the court weighed this assertion through the following lens:
Protected interests in property are normally not created by the Constitution. Rather, they are created, and their dimensions are defined by an independent source such as state statues or rules entitling the citizen to certain benefits. Although an independent source such as state law creates property interest, federal constitutional law determines whether that interest rises to the level of a legitimate claim of entitlement protected by the Due Process Clause.
The Minnesota Constitution created and established the right to a public education, resulting in this specific right to exist as a property interest that would be protected under said Due Process Clause. The court furthers this analysis by referring to DeLaTorre, 202 F. Supp. 3d at 1055, which establishes “no statue, rule, or case… definitively includes eligibility for interscholastic varsity competition within the right to a public education under Minnesota law.”
It should be noted that the decision does raise question to the lens in which interscholastic athletic participation aligns with the rights of receiving public education. Former cases were considered and reviewed which arguably suggest such a correlation’s existence, but many of these cases were considering season or year long suspensions as opposed to S.B.’s singular game in question. If one views interscholastic athletic participation as a part of the public education protected right, then S.B.’s claim favors in a positive light when considering the merits of the claim. The fact that he is receiving a single-game suspension, which also establishes he can remain on the football team, engage in school activities, and continue in all interscholastic school related activities except the next scheduled game in the tournament series, does not help his claim against MSHSL.
It is also noted that all ejections made by an MSHSL official require the official to review the decision with the entire officiating staff at the time of the penalty and after the game has concluded to ensure the application of the penalty is correct and justifiable. S.B. claims misconduct penalties should be subjected to review from a neutral decisionmaker. It is of the court’s opinion and basing their reasoning on precedential rulings that issues such as unsportsmanlike conduct penalties are most accurately determined when left as a judgement call that are best left to the discretion of the contest or acting officials. The MSHSL does identify certain plays may be video-reviewable during the semi-final and championship games, but these plays specifically involve objective criteria and not subjective judgement calls such as the unsportsmanlike conduct penalty in S.B.’s claim. It should also be noted that the plays deemed appropriate for video review are limited to narrow circumstance in which a given play may affect the outcome of the game in hand. Because of the aforementioned reasoning displayed, S.B. does not show a likelihood of success on the merits resulting in this factor weighing against injunctive relief in which he seeks.
The second factor warranting consideration, irreparable harm, is identified as when a party has no adequate remedy at law, typically because its injuries cannot be fully compensated through an award of damages. S.B successfully illustrates the threat and presence of irreparable harm with the understanding that money damages awarded would not adequately compensate for the loss of an opportunity to participate in a state championship game.
Next, the court considers if it is their obligation to “flexibly weigh the case’s particular circumstances to determine whether the balance of equities so favors the movant that the justice requires the court to intervene to preserve the status quo until the merits are determined.” As previously mentioned, S.B. has established an argument for irreparable harm in the absence of injunctive relief. One must continually keep in mind that his suspension is set at a singular game and event and is not applied to an entire season or academic year. Despite the circumstances of the importance of the game in this given situation (championship game), the instituted punishment is not deemed excessive or long lasting. After the suspension had been served, S.B. is permitted to resume activities with the team as usual and without additional punishment.
With this understanding, it is the court’s responsibility to weigh the harm against S.B. against the MSHSL’s interest in enforcing its Bylaws. If S.B. is permitted to participate in the subsequent game while consideration on the merits of his claim is being conducted, the MSHSL’s ability and overall effectiveness in enforcing its own rules and bylaws would certainly be diminished. Permitting such an action would set precedent for the MSHSL to conduct such hearings anytime an issue related to this occurs and considering the number of similar cases that occur in any given year, one must consider the long-term effect this may have on the governing body and all of its stakeholders long after this particular incident has occurred and been decided upon. One must also keep in mind that judicial intervention in this situation would alter, and not maintain the status quo as previously discussed. Based upon this reasoning, the court finds the balance of harms factor weighs against injunctive relief.
Finally, the public interest factor is considered. S.B. asserts that this factor weighs in favor of protecting the deprivation of constitutional rights until the matter can be examined and determined on its merits. As previously examined and determined, S.B. did not establish his case based on the likelihood of success on the merits of his constitutional claim. Again, based on this reasoning the court does not find sufficient evidence and weighs against granting injunctive relief. With the irreparable harm factor existing as the only favorable factor toward the plaintiff’s claim, the court finds a TRO is not warranted in this issue. S.B.’s request for a TRO is denied based on the reasonings, findings, and judgement listed above relying on an effective application toward all stakeholders potentially effected from such an approved request and from the precedential framework regarding such matters.
There are multiple components that warrant additional consideration from any case similar to this. One should be the importance of the matter and its potential to have long-lasting implications on a much wider reaching group of potential stakeholders. Although S.B. issued his complaint in hopes of participating in a state championship game, the potentially negative effect this exception to the established rules could have created more detrimental issues for numerous participants, officials, schools, administration, parents, and arguably most important the state governing body (MSHSL). A governing body without the ability to effectively uphold its constitution and bylaws is essentially ineffective and a shadow of what it should be in regard to its duty toward its own stakeholders. In this particular case, it is clearly stated within the MSHSL’s bylaws what is permitted and expectations of those choosing to participate in interscholastic competition. Wavering from this, without question, is directly harmful to the integrity and ability to enforce the rules and regulations of any governing body.
While it is unfortunate that S.B. will not be permitted to participate in such a memorable event as competing in a state championship game, this does offer a lesson for many to understand and apply as needed for upcoming athletes. This lesson is to always be cognizant of your own actions because consequences for inappropriate behavior does have the potential to have negative consequences. While it is subject for debate, currently participation in interscholastic varsity athletics is deemed as a privilege and almost voluntary while receiving an education is a protected right. Controlling one’s actions and understanding the potential consequences of failing to do so should be an integral part of any program in the hopes that interscholastic participation is not developing solely athletic prowess but aiding in the development of well-rounded and high character young men and women who will further develop into positive members of society in time.
S. B. v. Minn. State High Sch. League, No. 21-2553 ADM/JFD, 2021 U.S. Dist. WL 5545118
Michael A. Ross is the Department Chair and an Assistant Professor of Sport Management at Shorter University and a PhD student at Troy University specializing in research related to youth sport studies, leadership, sport law, social media policies and procedures within athletics, and participation motivations in sport and recreation.