Eligibility Disputes May Stop Massachusetts Tournaments

A new MIAA policy hopes to deter schools from taking their eligibility problems to court.

By Staff

Athletic Management, 13.6, October/November 2001, http://www.momentummedia.com/articles/am/am1306/bbmass.htm

Schools, players, or parents who sue the Massachusetts Interscholastic Athletic Association (MIAA) over eligibility rulings as season-ending championship tournaments are about to commence can no longer count on the events proceeding while the courts hear their cases. In August, the MIAA board unanimously adopted a policy calling for tournaments to be suspended when a court orders a player reinstated but doesn't give the MIAA enough time, pre-tournament, to appeal.

Such lawsuits have been lodged about once a year for the past several years, and this is the governing body's solution for stopping the trend. The idea is to put the onus of settling eligibility questions before tournament time back on the schools.

In many cases, MIAA officials assert, coaches and the administrators who are responsible for confirming athletes' academic eligibility suspect there's a question about a student but let it go because it may not seem important at the time. Even opposing teams may suspect something.

"If the suspected player is on the losing team they don't care,"says Paul Wetzel, a spokesman for the MIAA. "So these questions tend to fester for a while or they're dormant, but all of sudden they say to themselves, 'This team's going to go the tournament, and my team isn't, and I know that one player isn't eligible.' That always happens under a time frame that's very stressful.

"We're sending a message to coaches and everyone involved that if you suspect a kid is ineligible, then tell us about it at the beginning of the season,"Wetzel continues. "Don't wait until the tournament. Maybe that'll help. Then they have time to stay out of court."

The MIAA also wants to carry a case all the way through the Massachusetts legal system in hopes of getting a clear precedent set that eligibility questions belong with the association and not the courts, Wetzel says. One such dispute may provide just that chance and is the matter that seems to have prompted the new policy.

The case involved a basketball player at Pioneer Valley Regional High School in Northfield whom the association had ruled ineligible, meaning the school would forfeit 16 victories in which the player had taken part and lose its high seeding in the Division III tournament. The ruling was made on a Friday, the day before pairings for the tournament were to be set. The school immediately went to court. The next day, the MIAA was given notice that a hearing was scheduled for the following Monday.

"Even though we had an opportunity to go to court, that wasn't a fair chance to make a case,"Wetzel says. "The MIAA didn't have sufficient time to develop the documentation and information needed to present the case in court."

It was a complicated case. The student was in a program that allowed high school students to take college courses, and the association had ruled he was ineligible because he dropped out of a community college computer course and substituted a school-authorized work-study internship with a physical therapist. The association also questioned whether the student, who was taking four courses at the community college and one at the high school, was eligible for the dual-enrollment program.

The court sided with the school, finding that the school gave the student academic credit for the internship, and that association rules didn't define academic courses clearly enough and spell out how to handle dual-enrollment situations. The association sought to have a justice of the state's highest court temporarily block the reinstatement order, but failed, and Pioneer Valley played in the tournament.

The justice's ruling did not preclude the association pursuing the case on its merits after the tournament, and the MIAA is doing just that. The justice noted that the association has an interest in seeing that its rules are enforced.

The main immediate goal, however, is to get eligibility questions settled sooner rather than later, association officials say. MIAA Executive Director Dick Neal told board members in August that the message should be sent that the association will even cancel the regional football championships held each Thanksgiving weekend in the Bay State.

"We intend to publicize it and make sure everybody understands we will call off a tournament,"says Wetzel. "And if you're found to have done something that you knew wasn't correct, you're going to incur the peer pressure of your community, surrounding communities, and the other coaches in the league."