On Friday, a judge in a Mississippi federal court dismissed a lawsuit by Mississippi high school soccer players against the Mississippi High School Activities Association (the “MHSAA”) in which the players challenged a MHSAA rule limiting the number of players that can play simultaneously for a club soccer team and a specific high school soccer team during the course of a year.
The players claimed that the MHSAA rule deprived them of their fundamental right to equal protection as provided under the Fourteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution. In other words, the players claimed that the rule created two classes of student athletes—those who play for school and club teams to maximize training and development and those who play for either school or club teams and resultantly have limited opportunities to train and develop. The players alleged that the MHSAA rule treats the two classes of players unequally and therefore is unconstitutional.
The challenged MHSAA rule (the “50% Rule”) provides:
During the school’s sport seasons an independent team (i.e.: club team, recreational team, select team, elite team, all-star team) can be made up of no more than 50% of the number that make up the starting number of players for that sport from any one school (EX.: . . . 5 [players from one high school may participate in a club] soccer team . . .).
The 50% Rule defines a “sports season” as “that period beginning with the opening date of practice as called by each coach within the official starting dates and extending through the school team’s last game of the season to include playoff games and the state championship, if applicable, in a particular sport.” For Mississippi high school soccer players, the school sports season runs from late October to early February of the following year. The club season runs from August through May, which results in complete overlap with the high school season and substantially impacts players’ ability to play on both club and school teams.
The judge in the United States District Court for the Northern District of Mississippi dismissed the players’ claims, finding that the 50% Rule is rationally related to a legitimate governmental interest in promoting fair competition in schools. This “rational basis” test asks whether a classification of individuals that does not burden an “inherently suspect class” (e.g., a classification based on race) is rationally related to any legitimate state interest. In this case, the players claimed that the 50% Rule created two classes of players: players playing both school and club soccer and players playing either school or club soccer. The 50% Rule classification “burdens” players playing both school and club soccer and the players and the MHSAA agreed that the the rational basis test was applicable.
The MHSAA produced evidence that the purpose of the 50% Rule was to (1) “promote fair competition among all member schools”; (2) prevent a particular school from specialization in one sport by having all the starters on a specific team play together year round on an independent team”; and (3) “encourage students to participate in as many sports as they can, which increases the number of students playing sports rather than increasing the quality of a select few.” The court concluded that the MHSAA stated legitimate state interests in promoting fair competition and encouraging student athlete participation and that the 50% Rule is rationally related to meet those interests. As a result, the Court dismissed the players’ claims.
From a legal perspective, the players may appeal the Court’s ruling to the United States Appeals Court for the Fifth Circuit. Thus, while the district court’s work is done for the time being, the players may ask the U.S. Appeals Court to review the district court’s decision. From a sporting perspective, the district court’s ruling poses an interesting problem for the development of teenage soccer players in Mississippi. Some players will have to choose between playing high school or club soccer. Alternatively, some players that want to continue to play both school and club soccer may have to move from their current club teams or play for new club teams so that a high school team will not violate the 50% Rule. Whether that decision will have a lasting impact on development or participation in high school soccer will be better understood in the years to come.*
* None of the material contained herein is offered, nor should it be construed, as legal advice. You should not act or rely upon information contained in the above material without specifically seeking professional legal advice.