Top Three Legal Issues Impacting High School Athletics Programs

Over the course of the past year, lawsuits were filed, court cases were decided, legislation was enacted, and state athletic association decisions were handed down impacting high school sports. As we begin the 2018-2019 school year, here are three of the top legal issues.

Top Legal Issues Impacting High School Athletics Programs

Constitutional Rights of Student-Athletes

In cases involving the suspension of a student for violating athletic department or team codes of conduct, an increasing numbers of lawsuits have been filed alleging a violation of the student’s constitutional and civil rights.

For instance, a student suspended for inappropriate criticism of a coach often claims a violation of his or her First Amendment freedom of speech rights. A suspension for attendance at a party where alcohol is served can result in a First Amendment freedom of assembly challenge. A suspension for failing a drug test may bring a Fourth Amendment search and seizure challenge. A suspension alleged to be more severe than that given to other students for the same offense may bring a Fourteenth Amendment equal protection challenge.

Social Media Issues and School Authority to Sanction Student-Athletes

Courts continue to struggle with the issue of whether schools have the authority to sanction students for inappropriate, off-campus postings on social media websites in violation of school or athletics codes of conduct. In the past ten years, a handful of cases have been decided by the courts. In approximately one-half of these cases, courts have held that these punishments violate student free speech rights. On the other hand, other courts have found that schools have this authority because the speech created a substantial disruption at school, constituted bullying or harassment, or resulted in a true threat of violence against members of the school community.

Concussion Management and Return-To-Play Protocols

All 50 states now have a concussion law in place. Most of these laws contain three common themes: 1) any athlete suspected of having suffered a concussion must immediately be removed from play; 2) the athlete may not return to action the same day; and 3) the athlete may be returned to action only after written clearance is provided by a licensed health care professional.

Some of these state laws contain additional requirements, including that school personnel complete an annual concussion education course, that baseline testing be implemented by schools, and that students/parents be provided with concussion materials and sign a concussion information form.