The Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court ruled this week in Mancuso v Massachusetts Interscholastic Athletic Association that under Massachusetts law there is no property right to participate in interscholastic athletics and thus denial of a student’s right to participate on her high school swim team did not violate her Constitutional right to due process. Elizabeth Mancuso spent her ninth-grade year at Austin Prep, then transferred to Andover High School where she repeated the ninth grade. (She was a year younger than most of her classmates and repeated ninth grade to catch up.) Mancuso, who was “considered one of the fastest high school swimmers in the Commonwealth,” competed on the Andover High School swim team during her repeated freshman, sophomore, and junior years. The MIAA, which regulates high school athletics in Massachusetts, deemed her ineligible to swim for Andover during her senior year under its rule that “[a] student shall be eligible for interscholastic competition for no more than 12 consecutive athletic seasons (i.e. four consecutive years) beyond the first completion of grade 8.” The Andover principal asked the MIAA to waive the rule, the MIAA declined, and after her administrative appeals were exhausted Mancuso sued in Superior Court to enjoin enforcement of the rule and allow her to compete during her senior year, claiming (among other things) that the MIAA denied her right to due process and right to equal protection. A court granted a preliminary injunction allowing her to compete. The MIAA, however, prevailed at the trial court on (apparently after the season was over) and Mancuso appealed.
The SJC first addressed Mancuso’s claim under 42 U.S.C. s. 1983 that the MIAA violated her federal civil rights. There was no question that the MIAA is a state actor. “The only issue on appeal regarding the validity of the plaintiff’s claims under § 1983 is whether the MIAA has deprived her of any “rights, privileges, or immunities secured by [Federal law].” Mancuso argued that the MIAA deprived her of two constitutional rights. First, she argued “that she has a property interest in her participation in interscholastic athletics that arises either under State law or under the rules governing interscholastic athletics promulgated by the MIAA, and that the MIAA has deprived her of this interest without due process in violation of her rights under the Fourteenth Amendment.” Second, she argued that the MIAA “treated her differently from other students who participate in both interscholastic swimming and in private swimming clubs by denying her one year of eligibility” and thus denied her equal protection of the law.
The due process claim turned on whether Massachusetts law created some property interest in Mancuso’s participation in interscholastic athletics. The court rejected both of her contentions, that the right to education (including physical education) under the Massachusetts constitution implied an entitlement to play interscholastic athletics and that, after three years of eligible participation on the swim team, MIAA eligibility rules conferred an expectation of her continued eligibility.
[T]he right to a public education, even one with a mandatory physical education component, is not synonymous with the right to participate in extracurricular activities, such as interscholastic athletics. Although such activities may serve as a beneficial supplement to required physical education, they are by their nature separate from that curriculum. Practices and competitions for interscholastic athletic teams generally take place outside of regular school hours and, as is true for Andover’s swim team, may take place in nonschool facilities.
Mancuso’s claim of entitlement to continued benefit under MIAA’s eligibility rules is defeated by the express language of the rule limiting elibility to “12 consecutive athletic seasons (i.e. four consecutive years).” “To the extent the MIAA’s eligibility rules create any property interest in the plaintiff’s eligibility, that interest is “defined by the terms of [those rules].” [cite omitted]
The court rejected Mancuso’s claim that she was denied equal protection of the law “as a class of one” because her evidence at trial failed “to show that the MIAA granted waivers with respect to other swimmers who were similarly situated to the plaintiff” and because “even if the plaintiff had presented evidence sufficient to prove that other similarly situated persons were granted a waiver, the plaintiff introduced no evidence tending to show that this alleged differential treatment resulted from “invidious discrimination,” “fundamental procedural unfairness,” or a “gross abuse” of the MIAA’s power.”
Imagine the mischief had the court decided for Mancuso. Could students sue because they were cut from the varsity team, or benched during a playoff game with college recruiters in attendance? Would the student denied the lead in the school play be entitled to her day in court? The court acknowledged how troublesome a contrary ruling would be:
[W]e do not expand the contours of a student’s property interest in public education to include within it every extracurricular activity that might enrich the educational experience, however meaningful those activities might be to individual students. See, e.g., Ryan v. California Interscholastic Fed’n-San Diego Section, 94 Cal.App.4th 1048, 1063 (2001); Proulx v. Illinois High Sch. Ass’n, 125 Ill.App.3d 781, 786-787 (1984); Adamek v. Pennsylvania Interscholastic Athletic Ass’n, 57 Pa. Commw. 261, 263-265 (1981) (collecting cases). “The myriad activities which combine to form that educational process cannot be dissected to create hundreds of separate property rights, each cognizable under the Constitution. Otherwise, removal from a particular class, dismissal from an athletic team, a club or any extracurricular activity, would each require ultimate satisfaction of procedural due process.” Dallam v. Cumberland Valley Sch. Dist., 391 F.Supp. 358, 361 (M.D.Pa.1975).