High court supports limits on prep recruiting
By Mark Sherman
Associated Press Writer
WASHINGTON — Friday night lights are lure enough for young football players, the Supreme Court said Thursday in a decision that upholds limits on high school sports recruiting.
The high court ruled in a dispute between a Tennessee athletic association and a football powerhouse, the private Brentwood Academy near Nashville.
The school challenged a rule of the Tennessee Secondary School Athletic Association, which governs high school sports in the state.
The association bars schools from contacting prospective students about their sports programs.
Games have rules, wrote Justice John Paul Stevens in the unanimous decision. “It is only fair that Brentwood follow them.”
“Hard-sell tactics directed at middle school students could lead to exploitation, distort competition between high school teams and foster an environment in which athletics are prized more highly than academics,” Stevens wrote.
Brentwood argued that the restriction violated its free-speech rights, even though it voluntarily joined the association.
The dispute arose from a letter that Brentwood’s football coach sent to a dozen eighth-graders in 1997, inviting them to attend spring training at the school.
The students already had been accepted and signed enrollment contracts for the fall at Brentwood but were not attending the school.
Brentwood coach Carlton Flatt, who stepped down as coach in December after 34 years, told the boys that equipment would be distributed and “getting involved as soon as possible would definitely be to your advantage.” He signed the letter, “Your Coach.”
In Tennessee, as in many other states, high school football is played Friday nights. Some towns practically shut down as people stream to the game.
“It is a heady thing,” Stevens said, for an eighth-grader to be contacted directly by a coach and invited to join a high school sports team.
He compared the case to one in which the court upheld a state bar association’s limits on solicitations by lawyers. “The dangers of undue influence that exist when a lawyer chases an ambulance are also present when a high school coach contacts an eighth-grader,” Stevens said.
Brentwood Academy headmaster Curt Masters said at a news conference Thursday that school officials were disappointed the court classified Flatt’s letter as a recruitment tool.
“We’re still scratching our heads over why would you do that,” Masters said.
“Why would you sanction a school for harmless communication about permitted activity when the kids or their parents had already clearly indicated their intent to come in writing?”
Brentwood, like the other 375 or so public and private schools in the association, remains free to send brochures, post billboards and otherwise advertise its sports programs, he said.
James Blumstein, a Vanderbilt University professor who had been assisting Brentwood Academy, called it a narrow application of the First Amendment.
“The risk down the road is for school choice, and the court wrote it very narrowly down for this particular circumstance,” Blumstein said of Brentwood Academy’s letters to the students.
The case had previously been before the Supreme Court. In 2001, the court ruled 5-4 in favor of Brentwood, saying the athletic association acted in a quasi-governmental capacity and could be sued.
A federal appeals court later ruled in favor of the school, saying the letter amounted to protected speech under the First Amendment.
That ruling would prevent all high school associations from enforcing recruiting rules, lawyers for the state athletic association said.
“Whether it’s vindication, we feel very happy with the ruling because by the ruling, it lets not only Tennessee know but also the high school associations across the nation that we still can enforce our rules,” said Gene Menees, the Tennessee association’s assistant director.
The NCAA, the National School Boards Association and the National Federation of State High School Associations backed the Tennessee athletic association, saying broad powers are needed to protect children by enforcing recruiting rules. The Bush administration also argued in support of the association, urging the high court to reverse the lower court decision.
Brentwood Academy had support from the National Women’s Law Center, which worried about holding government accountable for gender discrimination.
The Association of Christian Schools International and the National Association of Independent Schools also sided with Brentwood.
The case is Tennessee Secondary School Athletic Assn. v. Brentwood Academy, 06-427.
Copyright 2005 Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.
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