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Justices uphold high school anti-recruiting rule

Times Staff Writers

High schools with big-time sports ambitions were dealt a setback Thursday when the Supreme Court upheld a rule that forbids coaches from recruiting young athletes.

In a 9-0 decision, the justices said the 1st Amendment’s guarantee of free speech does not shield coaches who ignore the rules of fair competition by contacting students and encouraging them to enroll in their school.

“To hold otherwise would undermine the principle ... that high school football is a game,” said Justice John Paul Stevens, quoting a lower-court judge.

“Games have rules. It is only fair that Brentwood follow them,” he added, referring to Brentwood Academy, a private school near Nashville that had become a powerhouse in Tennessee school sports.

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Brentwood Academy Coach Carlton Flatt, now retired, won 10 state football championships in his 34-year career. And he triggered an investigation by the state athletic association for sending letters to some eighth-grade boys in 1997 urging them to show up for spring practice. They were signed “Your Coach.”

The Tennessee Secondary School Athletic Assn. put Brentwood on probation and suspended it from the playoffs for two years. The school took the fight to court, arguing that the anti-recruiting rule violated its free-speech rights, and won before a federal judge and the U.S. court of appeals, only to suffer a unanimous reversal Thursday.

The court’s ruling is likely to reverberate across the country because all 50 states have high school athletic associations with anti-recruiting rules that apply to private and public schools.

It also comes at a time when sports at some high schools has reached an unprecedented level of media attention and competitive pressure.

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Scholastic sports officials in California welcomed the ruling.

“If the Supreme Court had not made its ruling ... I believe there would have been open season to promise things through inducement to athletes,” said Barbara Fiege, commissioner of the Los Angeles City Section. “What the state associations are concerned with is that high schools are about education first and activities second, and not ... training grounds for either colleges or professionals.”

Kevin Rooney, football coach at Notre Dame High School in Sherman Oaks, considered one of the strongest programs in Southern California, added: “If everyone were allowed to recruit, there would be all kinds of people talking to kids and making life difficult for them. It’s tough enough as an 18-year-old. To be recruiting 13-year-olds doesn’t do them any service.”

Though Thursday’s decision dealt with high schools, lawyers for the National Collegiate Athletic Assn. said it would strengthen their hand in enforcing restrictions on recruiting college athletes. Recently, the organization barred coaches from sending text messages to potential recruits after reports that star athletes in high schools were being deluged with messages.

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“This will have an impact on all athletic associations, at whatever level, to make and enforce rules like this one involving recruiting,” said Elsa Kircher Cole, general counsel for the NCAA in Indianapolis.

The Supreme Court stressed that Brentwood Academy chose to join the state athletic association and to compete for its championship. “For that reason, the 1st Amendment does not excuse Brentwood from abiding by the same anti-recruiting rule that governs the conduct of its sister schools,” Stevens said.

For their part, the coach and headmaster at Brentwood insisted they had not broken the rules. The letters were sent only to students who had expressed an interest in attending the school, they said.

An advocate for private schools called the ruling a disappointment. “Certainly you accept the rules on the field, but you shouldn’t have to accept a limit on free speech outside the competition,” said Washington lawyer Andrew McBride. “This is really protecting public schools from competition by private schools. For those who believe in school choice, it is very disappointing.”

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But officials of the state high school athletic associations said they feared a free-speech victory for Brentwood Academy would have undermined the enforcement of all the rules of competition. Although the Brentwood case dates back 10 years, the issues it raises have become even more prominent in recent years.

Like never before, high school athletes are getting national exposure, thanks to the proliferation of Internet recruiting websites and the willingness of cable TV channels to broadcast high school events nationally.

ESPN was one of the first to tap into the high school sports scene four years ago by broadcasting a basketball game that featured a promising teenage player, LeBron James, now a superstar with the NBA’s Cleveland Cavaliers. That game drew 1.6 million viewers and opened the floodgates to national attention for high school sports.

On the Internet there are services such as Scout.com and Rivals.com that colleges use to recruit high schoolers, and a statistics service, MaxPreps.com, which has more than a million high school athletes in its database and offers data supplied by coaches from all 50 states.

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Shoe companies identify basketball players in the seventh and eighth grades who one day could become national figures and market their products.

It’s these kinds of pressures and potential rewards that high school coaches must contend with, and state scholastic associations say they must be more vigilant than ever in preventing high schools from getting swept up in recruiting wars over budding superstars.

Jim Staunton, commissioner of the California Interscholastic Federation’s Southern Section, which is composed of 567 high schools in Southern California, said there was a wide range of challenges for high school sports.

“It’s club programs,” he said. “It’s the media. It’s parents who are being told college scholarships are plentiful. It’s students believing high school sports is the entree to professional contracts, and it’s this myth that the student has to pick the right school for exposure reasons.”

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The pressures to win have led high schools in the L.A. City Section, as well as other regions, to try to circumvent rules on recruiting, particularly of students playing at other high schools.

Two seasons ago, L.A.'s Fremont High was pulled from the City Section basketball playoffs because six ineligible transfers were on the roster.

And in 2004, L.A.'s Westchester High was banned from the basketball playoffs after an assistant coach illegally recruited an athlete from L.A.'s Verbum Dei.

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david.savage@latimes.com

eric.sondheimer@latimes.com

Savage reported from Washington and Sondheimer from Los Angeles.


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