The Ohio Second District Court of Appeals recently issued a decision on a student's challenge of an OHSAA eligibility ruling following the transfer of the student after he had turned age18. The case provides insight on how OHSAA will handle the interscholastic athletic eligibility of adult high school students who transfer school districts to live with persons other than parents or legal custodians.
In this case, 18 year old student Benjamin Ulliman filed a preliminary injunction against OHSAA seeking to restrain it from enforcing a one-year ban on Ulliman participating in interscholastic athletics. As a freshman, Ulliman attended Alter High School and played football. During his tenth-grade year, Ulliman transferred to Centerville High School, which was the school district of residence for his parents. However, Ulliman did not play sports at Centerville due to grade ineligibility. During the summer following his junior year, Ulliman moved into his grandparents' home in Springfield and began to practice with the Catholic Central High School football team. Again, Ulliman was unable to participate in athletics until October 12, 2008 due to grade ineligibility.
On October 13, 2008, OHSAA issued a letter ruling to Central stating that Ulliman was ineligible to play interscholastic athletics at Central for one year from the date of his transfer under OHSAA Bylaw 4-7-2. OHSAA Bylaw 4-7-2 states in relevant part:
If a student transfers after the first day of the student's ninth grade year or after having established eligibility prior to the start of school by playing in a contest (scrimmage, preview or regular season/tournament contest), the student will be ineligible for one year from the date of enrollment in the school to which the student is transferred. A student is considered to have transferred whenever the student changes from that school in which the student was enrolled as a ninth grader to any other school regardless of whether the school from which the student transferred or to which the student transferred is a public or non-public, member or non-member or whether the high schools are within the same district.
OHSAA noted that none of the exceptions to Bylaw 4-7-2, most notably a change of custody to another individual living in a new school district (i.e. Exception 2), applied.
Two days after the ruling, Ulliman filed suit against OHSAA in the Clark County Common Pleas Court seeking a preliminary injunction and order restraining OHSAA from enforcing the ban. Ulliman argued that it was impossible to fulfill the aforementioned change of custody exception to Bylaw 4-7-2 because he was 18. As an adult, the domestic relations court could not order a change of legal custody to Ulliman's grandparents. Ulliman also argued that Bylaw 4-7-2 only applied to his initial transfer from Alter to Centerville following his freshman year.
The trial court found that OHSAA had acted arbitrarily in ruling Ulliman ineligible, and issued an order restraining OHSAA from enforcing the one-year ban. The court reasoned that the first sentence of Bylaw 4-7-2 covers all high school transfers from one school to another. However, the second sentence codifies a much narrower definition of "transfer", and does not cover transfers that occur after the initial transfer from the school attended during the student's freshman year. Since Ulliman transferred from Centerville to Central in the summer preceding his senior year, the court found he did not "transfer" according to this narrow definition of Bylaw 4-7-2. The court also found that Exception 2 to Bylaw 4-7-2 could easily have applied but for the fact that Ulliman had turned 18 prior to moving in with his grandparents.
On appeal, the Second District Court of Appeals reversed the trial court and upheld OHSAA's one-year prohibition on Ulliman participating in interscholastic athletics. Interestingly, the Second District found the language of Bylaw 4-7-2 to be ambiguous. However, the Court was persuaded by evidence presented by OHSAA that the intent of Bylaw 4-7-2 was to prevent student-athletes from "shopping" around for a school to attend based solely on which school will best showcase the student's athletic talents. The Second District found this purpose would be best-served by prohibiting all transfers not subject to one of the listed exceptions in Bylaw 4-7-2, and not just an initial transfer from the school where the student began ninth grade.
The Second District also reversed the trial court's holding that OHSAA had acted arbitrarily in not applying Exception 2 to Bylaw 4-7-2 to maintain Ulliman's eligibility. While the court noted that Exception 2 may restrict students who cannot qualify for a change of custody due to their age, Ulliman failed to demonstrate that the rule was not rationally based. To the contrary, OHSAA presented evidence that the rule was designed to protect students to make sure they are not playing against students who are nineteen or twenty years of age. OHSAA also presented evidence that it adopted Exception 2 to Bylaw 4-7-2 with full knowledge of its meaning and impact, and that it had applied this Bylaw and its exceptions consistently in other matters.
(1) The checklist is adapted from a presentation by Julie J. Weatherly, Resolutions in Special Education, Inc.
Lessons learned from this case
With limited exception, it appears that a non-disabled student, age 18 or older, will lose eligibility to participate in interscholastic athletics for one-year from the date of transfer if the student moves from the home of his/her parents into the home of another individual residing in a new district. This could place a hardship on an 18 year old high school student who moves in with his/her grandparent, relative or other individual residing in a new district because his/her parents are no longer able to properly care for the student.
Although acknowledging that the language of OHSAA Bylaw 4-7-2 is ambiguous, and recognizing it was impossible (due to his age) for Ulliman to obtain a court-ordered change of legal custody per Exception 2, the Second District nevertheless refused to overturn the ruling of OHSAA. The court's holding reinforces the concept that student participation in athletics is a privilege and not a legal right. It also shows that courts are reluctant to interfere with the internal affairs of the OHSAA unless there is clear evidence of mistake, fraud, collusion or arbitrariness by OHSAA.