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Z.H. v. Kentucky High School Athletic Association

United States District Court, W.D. Kentucky, Paducah

January 11, 2019

Z.H., PLAINTFF
v.
KENTUCKY HIGH SCHOOL ATHLETIC ASSOCIATION, DEFENDANT

          MEMORANDUM AND OPINION AND ORDER

          Thomas B. Russell, Senior Judge.

         This case comes before the Court on Plaintiff's Motion for Preliminary Injunction and Stay of Enforcement of Final Order of the Defendant. (R. 5). The matter has been fully briefed, and the Court held a hearing on the matter on January 3, 2019, at which the parties presented oral argument. The Court being otherwise sufficiently advised, this matter is ripe for decision.

         BACKGROUND

         The Plaintiff (“Z”) is a prominent high school basketball player, expected to be aggressively recruited by division one universities across the country. In May of 2018, Z transferred from Adair County High School to Marshall County High School following a move from Columbia Kentucky to Benton Kentucky. Upon transferring, the Plaintiff and his father sought waiver of Kentucky High School Athletic Association (“KHSAA”) Bylaw 6 from the KHSAA.

         KHSAA Bylaw 6 restricts the athletic eligibility of transferring students. Pursuant to Bylaw 6, a transferring student-athlete, who has played in at least one varsity game after starting ninth-grade, is ineligible to participate in athletics at the school transferred to for one year. The period begins from the date of the last varsity game played at the school transferred from.

         However, there are exceptions to ineligibility due to transfer listed in Bylaw 6 Section 2. Relevant here, Section 2 provides an exception for student-athletes that have transferred due to a “bona fide change in residence.” But even if a student-athlete qualifies for an exception under Section 2, they may still be found ineligible under Bylaw 6 Section 3. Section 3 states in pertinent part: “A waiver of the period of ineligibility is not required to be granted for those students satisfying one of the exceptions in Sec. 2. … If the change in schools is motivated in whole or part by a desire to participate in athletics at the new school. …”

         The Ruling Officer for the KHSAA denied Z's initial request for waiver. Z appealed that decision at which point a hearing was held before an independent Hearing Officer. Throughout the hearing Z and his father maintained that the transfer from Adair County to Marshall County was motivated by academics, a desire for Z to graduate in three years, a desire to be in close proximity to an airport due to Z's Father's job in Maryland, and a slower life style conducive to their Christian values. Z's father was questioned about Z's four transfers prior to the ninth-grade and admitted those transfers were, at least in part, motivated by athletics. But he never wavered from his position that the transfer from Adair to Marshall, which occurred after the ninth-grade, was not motivated in whole, or in part, by athletics. According to Z and his father, where Z played was irrelevant. He was going to excel athletically at any school and had already developed the skills necessary to garner scholarship offers from around the country. Instead, Z's father testified at the hearing that it was more important for Z to select a high school that would prepare him for the academic rigors of college than it was for him to select a high school for athletic motivations.

         Towards the hearing's end, Z's father was confronted with an article printed in the Paducah Sun on May 25, 2018 based on a phone conversation he had with the article's author, Edward Marlow. The Article, titled “Harmon heading to Marshall County? Not just yet, says dad, ” contains several direct quotes from Z's father including the following:

“I know it's really good competitive with good coaching, ” [Z's father] said of the First Region. “But I think there has to be a balance between coaching and overall development. Because after a while, if you go 10 years and can count on one hand the No. of players that played Division I out of the region you begin to question-are they overcoaching?”
“The problem that I have with this is, I'm a little apprehensive about how … as a freshman . . . Z led the state in scoring. Played for USA Basketball, plays on the EYBL circuit. I understand the competitive coaches, but the players Z played against with USA Basketvall and EYBL? It's a whole different level. And he's over (1, 500) high school points already.”
“I don't want [Z] to be in a situation where, you know, as a freshman . . . he was good. And after a summer (like this) . . . he's obviously going to be a much better player. I don't want him to come into a situation where it's more about the coach.”

         Z's father admitted to giving the interview and making the statements therein but claimed that some of his words were taken out of context and “twisted.” He explained that his quotes only reflected “his perception” of high school basketball and coaching in Kentucky, and that his statements were made in response to Marlow trying to sell him on Region One basketball's attributes. Z indicated that his father's comments were made in response to what sounded like Marlow recruiting for Region One. Upon being repeatedly pressed by the KHSAA about the specific quote, “I don't want [Z] to come into a situation where it's more about the coach, ” Z's father reluctantly stated that he “had to have said something like that, ” but that it was “a while ago.” After admitting to saying something similar to the quote in the article, the KHSAA asked Z's father the following question: “With a kid as good as Z, you're going to take [whether the coach is more about himself than the players] into consideration before you enroll your child at that school, right?” Z's father answered, “yes, it's a consideration to think about.” Z's father testified that neither himself, nor Z, had met the Marshall County basketball coach prior to Z enrolling at Marshall County. However, Z's father had met with the Marshall County Principal Patricia Greer, according to Z's father, for academic purposes. Principle Greer confirmed at the hearing that she met with Z's father to discuss academics at Marshall County.

         Following the hearing, the Hearing Officer issued a recommended order to be approved by the KHSAA Commissioner. The recommended order contained findings of fact and conclusions of law, which supported the initial Ruling Officer's determination that waiver of Bylaw 6 not be granted, and Z remain ineligible.

         The KHSSA Commissioner, Julian Tackett, issued a Final Oder on November 15, 2018. In it, the Hearing Officer's recommended order was set aside, and separate findings of fact and conclusions of law were issued, as required by KHSAA due process. The Commissioner determined that there had been a bona fide move qualifying Z for an exception under Section 2, but that Z should remain ineligible pursuant to Section 3 because the record reflected that Z's transfer was motivated, at least in part, by the desire to participate in athletics. In coming to the conclusion that Z's transfer was in part athletically motivated, the Final Order relies on the Paducah Sun article, Z's Father's statement at the hearing indicating that coaching is always a consideration, and Z's transfers prior to ninth-grade.

         Following the final order, Z's father filed suit on his behalf in Marshall County Circuit Court against the KSHAA. The KSHAA removed the case pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 1331. The Plaintiff now moves the Court for a preliminary injunction that would allow him to participate in varsity basketball at Marshall County High School while this litigation is ...


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