WASHINGTON - Friday night lights are lure enough for young football players, the Supreme Court said yesterday in a decision that upholds limits on high school sports recruiting.
The high court ruled in a 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.
Games have rules, wrote Justice John Paul Stevens in the unanimous decision. "It is only fair that Brentwood follow them.
"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," Stevens wrote.
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 the school. The students already had been accepted and signed enrollment contracts for the fall at Brentwood but were not yet in school.
Brentwood coach Carlton Flatt, who stepped down as coach in December after 34 years, told the boys that equipment would be distributed and "getting involved as soon as possible would definitely be to your advantage." He signed the letter, "Your Coach."
In Tennessee, as in many other states, high school football is played on Friday nights.
"It is a heady thing," Stevens said, for an eighth grader to be contacted by a coach and invited to join a high school team.
He 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 375 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 5-4 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 state athletic association said.
"Whether it's vindication, we feel very happy with the ruling because by the ruling, it lets not only Tennessee know but also the high school associations across the nation that we still can enforce our rules," said Gene Menees, the Tennessee association's assistant director.
The NCAA, the National School Boards Association, and the National Federation of State High School Associations backed the Tennessee athletic association, saying broad powers are needed to protect children by enforcing recruiting rules.