‘Let the kid play’ Judge orders RIIL to allow student athlete to compete senior year

‘Let the kid play’: Judge orders RIIL to allow student athlete to compete senior year


PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) – A federal judge has ruled the Rhode Island Interscholastic League violated the Americans with Disabilities Act when it told a high-school senior he couldn’t continue playing sports.

ORIGINAL NOTE: https://www.wpri.com/tim-white/let-the-kid-play-judge-orders-riil-to-allow-student-athlete-to-compete-senior-year/

“Let the kid play,” U.S. District Judge William Smith concluded in his 39-page order filed in federal court Wednesday. “The league’s point amounts to saying that accommodating people with disabilities is hard and they should not have to do it.”

The case pitted the RIIL against an unnamed high schooler along with and his parents over a rule that forbids student athletes from playing sports after more than eight semesters in high school. Student athletes are only allowed to play beyond that time if they obtain a waiver from the organization.

In this case, the student – identified in the lawsuit as John Doe – was attending an unnamed parochial school in Rhode Island as a freshman in 2020 when the country was in the throes of the COVID-19 pandemic. Concerned about his academic and social well-being, his parents sent him to an out-of-state boarding school to repeat his freshman year.

The student struggled at the school, according to the facts of the case, and that summer he was diagnosed with anxiety, depression, ADHD and other learning disabilities. The student then returned to the parochial school in Rhode Island and played both basketball and football on a doctor’s recommendation.

“By all accounts, his time playing competitive football and basketball made a real positive impact on his mental health and overall well-being,” Smith wrote.

RIIL rejected the student’s claims of “undue hardship” and denied the student’s request a waiver to play sports in his senior year. His parents then filed the lawsuit, arguing the league violated the ADA because they failed to make reasonable accommodations based on his disabilities.

“Instead of having John be fully part of a team, the league wants John to sit on the sidelines, despite the demonstrably profound benefits that extracurriculars, like team sports, have on students’ mental health,” Smith wrote. “Their justification? Well, that’s the rule, and rules are rules.”

In a footnote, Smith wrote he found it “curious why competitive high school sports have become such an elevated extracurricular activity.”

“Had John wanted to participate in art club, marching band, mock trial, debate club, or service club during his ninth and tenth semesters, it is highly doubtful that there would be a challenge to his participation,” he wrote.

Smith said issuing a waiver for someone under the student’s circumstances was similar to a U.S. Supreme Court case that determined allowing a PGA golfer with a disability to use a cart instead of walking the course. In the 2001 decision, the court found it did not “fundamentally alter competition” because the walking rule was not an “essential aspect” of the game.

The RIIL argued they did not violate the ADA because the student didn’t repeat his freshman year due to his disabilities. They pointed out he was diagnosed the summer after his freshman year.

But Smith noted it was only the student’s return to Rhode Island that prevented him from playing his senior year.

“Said differently, the board school would have allowed him to play competitively through his senior year,” Smith wrote, adding there was a causal connection to his disability and the rule. “Had John not been suffering from anxiety, depression, and ADHD, among other impairments, he would have completed his time at the boarding school and played sports through his senior year.”

Michael Lunney, executive director of the RIIL, said in an email that they will be “considering its options moving forward and do not have any further comment at this time.”

The ruling was first reported by The Providence Journal.

More broadly, Smith rejected the RIIL’s argument that some aspects of the ADA did not apply to them because it is not a government body but rather a nonprofit that “administers, regulates and supervises competitive high school sports” across the state.

“Member schools – a majority of which are public – delegate their authority to RIIL and allow it to use their facilities to host events and competitions,” Smith wrote. “RIIL is an ‘instrumentality of the state,’ and thus is a ‘public entity.’”

The RIIL also argued that if Smith ruled against them, they would get a “floodgate of requests” for eight-semester rule waivers.

“RIIL’s assertion, however, is neither backed by adequate evidence, nor compelling even if true,” Smith wrote.

Smith also wrote that allowing the student to play did not give the school an unfair advantage because the student was not a star player and “to put it bluntly, John’s school does not seem to have an athletics program that is contending to win a state championship.”

Throughout his decision, Smith sprinkled in references to the 1993 classic true-story film “Rudy,” the unlikely tale of a longshot walk-on player for the vaunted Notre Dame football team.

“John Doe is like Rudy,” Smith wrote. “He may not be a future Heisman Trophy recipient, but, even so, he deserves his moment to play competitively with his team as a senior.”

He added, “Those are the memories that will stick with him.”

Tim White (twhite@wpri.com) is Target 12 managing editor and chief investigative reporter and host of Newsmakers for 12 News. Connect with him on Twitter and Facebook.