Student-Athletes’ Race Discrimination Claim Survives Motion

Sep 1, 2004

A federal court in the Northern District of Illinois has delivered a mixed ruling on pretrial motions in a case where several African-American student-athletes attending a Chicago parochial school sued the Catholic Archdiocese, claiming racial discrimination.
The plaintiffs had alleged that the Southside Catholic Conference (“SCC”), an Illinois nonprofit corporation that directs and organizes sporting events for the diocese, used race as a factor in initially denying their predominantly African-American school admission into the conference. The diocese sought summary judgment on a 42 U.S.C. §1981 race discrimination claim, among other claims.
The diocese’s summary judgment motion, which could only be granted “if there is no genuine issue as to any material fact,” was denied.
The plaintiffs were African-American 7th and 8th grade basketball players at the Chicago Archdiocese’s St. Sabina Academy. The plaintiffs sued because the school was initially denied a spot in the SCC and because they felt, after being admitted, that the school, team and individual players were racially discriminated against during their participation in the conference.
While St. Sabina’s eventually gained admission into the conference, the court held that the school’s initial denial was still an injury capable of redress. Because the students would be compensated if the court ruled in their favor, the fact that the SCC eventually admitted St. Sabina’s was irrelevant.
Under a §1981 claim, “a plaintiff is required to show that: (1) he is a member of a racial minority; (2) the defendant had an intent to discriminate on the basis of race; and (3) the discrimination deprived the plaintiff of one or more of the rights enumerated in [the] section.” In order to be granted the summary judgment motion, the SCC must establish that no reasonable person could possibly find that the conference’s intentions were not racially motivated.
The SCC Board of Directors is composed of a representative from each participating school. According to witnesses, the board initially denied St. Sabina Academy admission into the conference because of the school’s location in a high crime area. While the board evidently never discussed the academy’s demographics during the decision-making process, the court believed subsequent acts could indicate that the denial was racially motivated. After the May 25, 2001 meeting, the school’s pastor wrote a letter stating he believed race was a factor in the board’s decision.
Several days later, the diocese’s Cardinal issued a statement that rejected safety concerns as a reason to exclude St. Sabina. Additionally, St. Sabina had attempted to ameliorate the expressed fear of the school’s location by providing buses for other schools’ teams, but would not agree to play all of its games at an away or “neutral” location.
Two and a half months after St. Sabina expressed interest in the SCC, it was admitted. Ten days later, the school withdrew, and would accept re-admittance only if the SCC added several clauses to their bylaws. The SCC rules restrict additions to their bylaws annually in March, but held a special board meeting in August to accommodate St. Sabina’s.
Scheduling conflicts with other SCC-directed sports at St. Sabina’s throughout the season and a racial slur at one of the games prompted the suit against the SCC. While the scheduling issues were found unavoidable, the racial comment was not addressed as promised. The SCC refused to enforce the initial stated punishment against an opposing team whose member insulted the St. Sabina player. The board’s Executive Committee had concluded that “a member of each school’s eighth grade boys’ basketball team would be required to participate in peer mediation. If St. Sabina refused to participate, the SCC would consider the matter closed. If [the opposing school] refused to participate, the eighth grade team would not be allowed to participate in the playoffs.” St. Sabina agreed to participate in the peer mediation, but the opposing school refused. The Executive Committee, however, reconsidered the initial punishment and later determined it too severe. Nine months later, the opposing school was permitted to play in the playoffs. St. Sabina withdrew from all SCC activities and events, including the playoffs.
St. Sabina parents brought claims on behalf of their children against the SCC, the Chicago Archdiocese, the Cardinal and several SCC officials asserting the above Section 1981 claim, but also included the claims of fraud, breach of contract, negligence and intentional infliction of emotional distress.
All defendants filed for summary judgment. The suits against the Cardinal and the Archdiocese were dismissed on all accounts. Additionally, the court found no presence of emotional distress and denied both parties’ intentional infliction of emotional distress claims. The court determined that all other claims against the SCC were not fit for summary judgment, and trial was necessary to determine the appropriate facts. The conference officials were granted summary judgment with respect to the fraud claim, but because they were parties in the contract, were not fit for summary judgment in the breach of contract and negligence claims.
SMITH et al. v. THE CHICAGO ARCHDIOCESE (d.b.a. The CATHOLIC BISHOP OF CHICAGO) et al.; N.D.Ill.; No. 02 C 2261 ; 6/17/04


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