Truth really is stranger than fiction, especially here in Alabama. It would be impossible to conjure this story in a fictional novel because it’s just too preposterous. Belief can’t be suspended that high or that long, not for mere fiction.
Clay-Chalkville High School had a great football season, ending up ranked number one in the state in the Birmingham News power rankings, a poll somewhat similar to the Associated Press polls for college teams.
Then tragedy struck. The Alabama High School Athletic Association made them forfeit all nine of their games because they played an ineligible player. The player was ineligible because he’d transferred in without being in good standing from his previous school, a violation of AHSAA by-laws. The Clay-Chalkville Cougars were thereby barred from the post-season; with their season forfeited, they no longer qualified.
Then the lawyers got involved. Clay-Chalkville High is a school in the Jefferson County School System, so it hired lawyers to file for a temporary restraining order prohibiting enforcement of the ruling by the AHSAA, which was duly granted yesterday evening, three days prior to this weekend’s first round of playoffs.
The ruling from Judge Helen Shores Lee of the Jefferson County Circuit Court is temporary pending a November 10th hearing, at which time the first round of the playoffs will have already been played. By allowing Clay-Chalkville back in, the ruling kicked Gadsden City (5-5) out of the playoffs. So you guessed it. The Gadsden City School Board (Gadsden is a small city about 50 miles northeast of Birmingham; Clay-Chalkville is a distant suburb of Birmingham, also to the northeast) hired its own lawyers and filed for an injunction against Judge Lee’s ruling. But not in Jefferson County, where the original suit had commenced. They filed in Etowah County Circuit Court, the county in which Gadsden is situated. There’s a reason people say all politics is local, which is the same reason its derivative function, administering law and justice, is as well. Or, as I learned whilst practicing law; ’tis a far better thing to know the judge than to know the law when you show up in court.
The filing in Etowah Circuit Court is against the AHSAA. Which seems curious, since Clay-Chalkville’s claim was also against the AHSAA. But of course, it had to be against the AHSAA if it were to be filed in Etowah County. The curious position of the Gadsden City lawyers is that the AHSAA is not enforcing its own rules, though the AHSAA had been barred by another circuit court from that very thing.
The real question here is one of jurisdiction. Which court is the proper venue for hearing this matter? Never mind that, is this even a justiciable controversy? It looks a bit clownish to have dueling, self-interested circuit courts issuing possibly conflicting opinions. It seems this is a matter that, if resolvable through litigation at all, should be heard by an Alabama Appellate Court, either the Alabama Court of Civil Appeals or the Alabama Supreme Court. It looks even more clownish that both communities resorted to the trouble and expense of going to court over high school football. Jefferson County has been on the cusp of bankruptcy for several years now, but apparently things aren’t so dire they can’t afford lawyers for their School Board to fight the evil interlopers at the AHSAA which wish to deprive them of their right, by God, to play football for championships. Never mind that the AHSAA is the body awarding the championship.
But truthfully, there is no justiciable controversy here. The ruling from the AHSAA should not have been subject to judicial scrutiny. The AHSAA is a private organization, and every good Alabamian knows that private organizations can make their own rules, no matter how discriminatory or prejudicial, and interpret those rules in the manner they see fit. Imagine the howls of derision that would have erupted had this been about a private golf club allowing only its white male membership to compete in its annual fundraising tournament. Everyone would say it is the golf club’s prerogative to exclude or include whomever they wish. That the AHSAA has a great many public schools as members does not make it a public organization. As it states on its website, “…It is a private agency organized by its member schools to control and promote their athletic programs”. Membership in the AHSAA is not mandatory for either public or private schools. Most choose to join because doing so is the best (sometimes only) way to compete in the sports it sanctions, and anyone with school-age kids that is paying any attention at all knows that the main point of high school is participation in extracurricular activities like sports. Academics take up about a third of my children’s day. The rest is band, show choir, volleyball, etc.
In the meantime, it seems that the fate of the AHSAA high school football playoffs resides in separate circuit courts, each of which appears willing to judicially go where no court should go, and for reasons that no court should entertain. But imagine the benefit to the respective reelection campaigns of the circuit court judges for standing up for their local high schools. Perhaps this is keen evidence that electing judges maybe ain’t such a good idea.
(You can read more on this silliness here).