A federal judge in the Middle District of Georgia has dismissed the claim of a former football coach and several of his former players, who claimed that their due process rights were violated when the school district failed to appeal an eligibility ruling.
In so ruling, the court found, among other things, that because the “plaintiffs had no constitutionally protected right to participate in interscholastic sports, they had no protectable property or liberty interest to establish a due process claim.”
The lead plaintiff, James Stewart, Jr., was the Head Football Coach of the Southeast High School football team, which in 2002 was playing its last season of football because the school was closing the following year and being consolidated into a new school.
In the fall of 2002, Bibb County School District Athletic Director Raynette Evans was informed that one of the players on the Southeast team was ineligible to play because he was not a legal resident of Bibb County. Evans reported the allegation to the Georgia High School Association and the GHSA found the residence eligibility rule had been violated. Southeast had to forfeit all of its games for the 2002 season and was not permitted to play in the playoffs. The GHSA’s decision was not appealed.
The plaintiffs sued the Board of Education and Evans alleging (1) substantive and procedural due process violations and (2) emotional distress and mental suffering. Specifically, they claimed the defendants “violated their liberty interests in preserving their reputations because the events so stigmatized the players that they were unable to receive scholarships to play in college and were thus deprived of their right to pursue higher education.” Stewart also claimed that “his reputation was damaged to the extent that he was deprived of his freedom to pursue other employment opportunities.”
The defendants moved to dismiss the case, arguing that the inability to participate in football games does not involve a deprivation of constitutionally protected liberty or property interests.”
In reviewing the motion, the court wrote that the state and federal courts “have made it very clear that students do not have property rights in any expectation to participate in athletics or in any benefit resulting therefrom.
“In Parish v. NCAA, basketball players sued to prevent the athletic association from enforcing its ruling that declared the players ineligible to play based on their failure to obtain the minimum grade point average. Parish v. NCAA, 506 F.2d 1028 (5th Cir. 1975). The court held that the privilege of participating in interscholastic athletics falls outside the protection of due process. Id. at 1034 (citation omitted). The court noted that the players lost only the opportunity to play in NCAA-sponsored games and therefore had alleged no deprivation of any property or liberty interests. The court also noted that the alleged injury to their hoped-for careers was ‘far too speculative to establish a property interest.’ Id.”
The Court continued, writing that “because Plaintiffs had no constitutionally protected right to participate in interscholastic sports, they had no protectable property or liberty interest to establish a due process claim. Likewise, the Plaintiff players had no protected property interest in the forfeited games, the ability to play in the playoffs or in any potential scholarship they MAY have received. Plaintiff Stewart’s alleged property interest to participate as a coach does not give rise to a due process claim either. Plaintiff Stewart was not terminated or demoted and therefore has no claim for a lost interest in employment. Because the Plaintiffs had no constitutionally protected interest in these matters, there can be no due process claim based on the Defendants’ failure to appeal the GHSA’s forfeiture and ineligibility determinations.”
James Stewart, Jr., et al. v. Bibb County Board of Education, et al.; M.D.Ga.; 5:04-CV-365 (WDO); 2/23/06
Attorneys of Record: (for plaintiff) Bonnie Michelle Smith, Michelle Smith, Warner Robins, GA. (for defendants) Eugene S. Hatcher, Jr., John C. Daniel, III, W. Warren Plowden, Jr., Macon, GA.