In a harshly worded opinion, the Oklahoma Supreme Court on Tuesday slammed the association that oversees high school athletics for taking arbitrary and capricious actions against a football team.
The Supreme Court warned in the 7-2 opinion that the Oklahoma Secondary School Activities Association will see tougher judicial scrutiny of its actions from now on.
“This Court has permitted the OSSAA, in the guise of a voluntary association, to govern the affairs of secondary school athletics in Oklahoma with near impunity. No more,” Justice Yvonne Kauger wrote for the majority in the 40-page opinion.
She wrote that an organization interwoven so tightly with the public school system is not truly voluntary.
“Because the role it plays in our state goes above and beyond that of a traditional voluntary association, closer scrutiny when reviewing its actions is a necessity,” she wrote.
“We will, when necessary, examine its actions with the same careful depth we use in examining the decisions of state agencies,” she wrote.
The ruling comes almost two weeks after former Sooner coach Barry Switzer and other critics of the organization complained at a legislative hearing about its practices. The hearing resumes Thursday.
The OSSAA oversees extracurricular activities for nearly every public school in Oklahoma for grades seven through 12, including the makeup of athletic districts, playoffs and student transfers and eligibility.
Last year, the OSSAA barred the football team at Sequoyah High School in Tahlequah from the 3A playoffs. The team was required to forfeit its nine wins, and the school was told to reimburse the association $25,000.
The OSSAA found the Cherokee Nation-supported school improperly had paid for players to attend football camps.
The Supreme Court, though, found the association in the Sequoyah case repeatedly acted in an arbitrary and capricious manner in interpreting and enforcing its rules. Justices specifically ruled the school did not have to pay the $25,000 penalty.
‘Too much control'
“Competition in sports is more than a mere passing enjoyment for students,” justices noted. “Particularly in rural areas, athletic teams are the glue which holds the community together. The college and post-college careers of student athletes often have their genesis at the secondary school level, and for some provide the only path to higher education.
“The OSSAA wields too much control over their future to be allowed to act in an arbitrary and capricious manner in applying its rules. It must be reasonable, it must be conscientious and it must be fair. From now on, we trust, it will be.”
Challenging the OSSAA's sanctions to the Supreme Court was the team's quarterback, Brayden Scott. He since has graduated.
His attorney, Chad Smith, said, “It was heartbreaking for these kids not to be able to compete for that state championship.”
The attorney said the OSSAA policies are difficult to understand and the school did not believe it had done anything wrong in paying for camps.
“Our coaches had no clue that was against any rules because when they went to these camps they'd look around and there would be two dozen other schools there doing exactly the same thing,” said Smith, the former principal chief of the Cherokee Nation.
“In this case, the policies were convoluted and inconsistent,” he said. “You sit down to read them it would take you days to figure out what you think they said. When you have such an organization, the rules and policies have to be readable … so you don't get yourself in trouble.”
One justice dissents
In a dissent, Justice Steven Taylor wrote that any changes at the OSSAA should be initiated by the Legislature or its member schools.
“This case is certainly not worthy of any relief due to the fact that this student, coach and school clearly and flagrantly violated the rules,” Taylor wrote.
OSSAA will evaluate what needs to be done after reviewing the opinion, its executive director, Ed Sheakley, said Tuesday.
“We will obviously discuss this at our October board meeting,” he said.
State Rep. Bobby Cleveland, R-Slaughterville, said recommendations will be made to OSSAA once the legislative hearings are over.
“We are going to make recommendations for … the OSSAA to make changes in the way they do business,” the legislator said. “I don't think that it will happen because the director is so egotistical and thinks he's above everybody that he's going to still think that they're perfect, that they don't make any mistakes.”
He said legislators next year may have to pass laws to force the association to make changes.
“I really wish that they would recognize that they have a problem and fix it. I don't think that's going to happen,” Cleveland said.
This court has permitted the OSSAA ... to govern the affairs of secondary school athletics in Oklahoma with near impunity. No more.”
Justice Yvonne Kauger,,
in the ruling