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Justices split over IHSAA athlete eligibility ruling

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Indiana’s justices couldn’t agree on whether they should even rule on a case involving an athlete’s eligibility in high school when the girl is now playing college basketball.

Justices Brent Dickson and Robert Rucker argued in Indiana High School Athletic Association v. Jasmine S. Watson, No. 71S03-1002-CV-119, that the Indiana Supreme Court should dismiss the appeal because athlete Jasmine Watson has graduated from high school. They also pointed to recent legislation that requires challenges to Indiana High School Athletic Association eligibility rulings to be decided by an independent case review panel.

“A majority of this Court prefers not only to take jurisdiction but also to apply this Court‘s recent decisions that virtually immunize IHSAA decisions from meaningful judicial review. I strongly disagree,” wrote Justice Dickson in his dissent. “The IHSAA‘s rules and enforcement practices impinge upon parental authority and responsibility to select the schools most appropriate for the interests and talents of their children.”

Watson played basketball and ran track at Elkhart Memorial High School and sought a transfer to play on South Bend Washington High School’s teams after her family moved to South Bend. Watson was being recruited by an Amateur Athletic Union coach to transfer so she would be able to compete for a high school championship. Her mother also had her work-hours reduced and her home entered foreclosure, so she wanted to move to South Bend to be closer to family.

Elkhart Memorial refused to approve her transfer, arguing she moved primarily for athletic reasons. The IHSAA assistant commissioner and a review committee found her to be ineligible. The review committee cited Elkhart Memorial’s coach’s descriptions of conversations he had with other coaches and his players regarding Watson’s comments about transferring. The IHSAA also found her family’s economic hardships weren’t the primary reason her family moved as Watson’s mother sought a rental home in South Bend before looking in Elkhart and claimed to not find anything affordable or suitable in Elkhart.

Watson’s mom sued on her behalf and the trial court granted a preliminary injunction preventing the IHSAA from enforcing its decision. The trial judge found the IHSAA disregarded evidence, and that it relied on hearsay statements. A split Indiana Court of Appeals affirmed.

The majority on the Supreme Court reversed the trial court and agreed with the Court of Appeals’ reasons as to why the appeal isn’t moot: if the IHSAA wins, then it could make Washington High School forfeit victories and money and the IHSAA has filed a counterclaim against the Watsons for damages, which hasn’t been resolved. Plus, the issues of families relocating because of financial issues will mostly likely come up again.

The majority disagreed with the trial court that the IHSAA’s decision was arbitrary and capricious. The trial court often pointed out the IHSAA’s version of events heavily relied on hearsay, but the Supreme Court has held that agency decisions may be based in part on hearsay, wrote Chief Justice Randall T. Shepard.

“Rather than inquiring whether substantial evidence existed to support the ruling, the court substituted its own judgment for the IHSAA’s. It rejected the IHSAA’s assessment of several witnesses, concluded that the IHSAA incorrectly assessed evidence contrary to the ruling, and improperly discredited virtually all hearsay evidence,” he wrote.

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