SJC Upholds MIAA’s Decision That Fifth-Year Senior is Not Eligible for Athletic Participation

On August 29, 2022, the Supreme Judicial Court issued a decision in Abner v. Massachusetts Interscholastic Athletic Association, No. 13224 (2022). The court upheld a determination by the Massachusetts Interscholastic Athletic Association (“MIAA”) that a high school senior who had repeated his junior year and had played four prior years of high school athletics was ineligible for a fifth year. The SJC decided that courts should only overturn MIAA eligibility decisions that are “arbitrary and capricious”. Applying that standard, the SJC concluded that the MIAA’s denial of the request for an extra year of athletic eligibility was a valid application of its rules.

The student attended a public high school for three years and participated in football and basketball each year. During the football seasons the coach allegedly bullied the student, causing him to develop anxiety and depression. As a result, the student transferred to a private school. Based in part on struggles the student had with learning, the student repeated his junior year at the new private school and played football and basketball. Both the public and private schools attended by the student were members of the MIAA. Since the MIAA has a rule restricting student-athlete eligibility to four years, the student was ineligible to play for his senior season unless he received an eligibility waiver. The student requested a waiver and attached a letter from his therapist describing the role sports played in relieving the student’s anxiety and depression, but the MIAA denied the application. After the student obtained a preliminary injunction in the Superior Court, the MIAA appealed and the SJC exercised direct review.

Because the student had played both football and basketball during his senior year while the appeal was pending and had then graduated, he urged the court to dismiss the appeal because the case had become “moot”. The SJC disagreed because retroactive penalties could still be imposed on the school, meaning that it retained a “stake” in the outcome, and because similar challenges to MIAA eligibility determinations are “virtually certain” to be brought in the future. Moving to the merits of the appeal, the court held that, because the MIAA is treated as a state actor for legal purposes and enjoys administrative discretion to determine student-athlete eligibility, a reviewing court should examine a challenged eligibility decision only to determine whether the decision is arbitrary and capricious. Since this is a lenient standard, the SJC determined that the MIAA’s decision was not arbitrary and capricious because it addressed every factor in its eligibility rule and it was supported by evidence.

The Abner decision is important because it sets the standard of review for MIAA eligibility decisions. So long as school districts follow the eligibility rules of the MIAA for sports that are subject to MIAA jurisdiction or use rules that they are authorized to promulgate by the MIAA, it appears that application of those rules will be subject to the generous standard laid out in Abner.

If you have any questions about the content of this update, please contact us. We are pleased to assist public and private schools with all legal issues related to athletics, including eligibility determinations, student records, and participation waivers.

This update is provided for informational purposes only and should not be considered legal advice.