WASHINGTON -- The Supreme Court said yesterday that athletic associations can enforce limits on recruiting high school athletes without violating coaches' free speech rights.
The high court ruled in a longstanding dispute between a Tennessee athletic association and a football powerhouse, the private Brentwood Academy near Nashville. The school challenged a rule of the Tennessee Secondary School Athletic Association, which governs high school sports in the state. The association bars schools from contacting prospective students about their sports programs.
In a unanimous ruling, the court said that "hard-sell tactics directed at middle school students could lead to exploitation, distort competition between high school teams and foster an environment in which athletics are prized more highly than academics."
Games have rules, Justice John Paul Stevens said for the court. "It is only fair that Brentwood follow them," Stevens said. Brentwood argued that the restriction violated its free-speech rights, even though it voluntarily joined the association.
The dispute arose from a letter that Brentwood's football coach sent to a dozen eighth-graders in 1997, inviting them to attend spring training at Brentwood. The students already had been accepted and signed enrollment contracts for the fall.
Brentwood coach Carlton Flatt, who stepped down in December after winning 10 state championships in 34 years, told the youth s that equipment would be distributed and "getting involved as soon as possible would definitely be to your advantage." He signed the letter, "Your Coach."
Stevens compared the case to one in which the court upheld a state bar association's limits on solicitations by lawyers. "The dangers of undue influence that exist when a lawyer chases an ambulance are also present when a high school coach contacts an eighth grader," Stevens said.
Brentwood, like the other 350 or so public and private schools in the association, remains free to send brochures, post billboards, and otherwise advertise its sports programs, he said.
The case had previously been before the Supreme Court. In 2001, the court ruled 5 to 4 in favor of Brentwood, saying the athletic association acted in a quasi-governmental capacity and could be sued.
A federal appeals court later ruled in favor of the school, saying the letter amounted to protected speech under the First Amendment.
That ruling would prevent all high school associations from enforcing recruiting rules, lawyers for the athletic association said.
The NCAA, the National School Boards Association and the National Federation of State High School Associations backed the association, saying broad powers are needed to protect children. The Bush administration also argued in support of the association, urging the high court to reverse the lower court decision.
Brentwood Academy had support from the National Women's Law Center, which worried about holding government accountable for gender discrimination. The Association of Christian Schools International and the National Association of Independent Schools also sided with Brentwood.