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Court dismisses lawsuit trying to unite international college athletes with U.S. teams

Two women stand back to back while other women are standing around behind them.
Australian basketball players Gemma Potter, left, and Izzy Anstey were among the freshman international athletes at UCLA and LMU unable to join their teams this season. Potter eventually gave up her scholarship at UCLA and decided to pursue a professional career in Australia.
(Izzy Anstey)

A lawsuit filed to help 16 international athletes from UCLA and Loyola Marymount get into the United States was dismissed by the U.S. District Court on Friday, exhausting a third, and likely final, chance that the courts could unite the athletes with their teams this school year amid coronavirus travel restrictions.

Under current guidance from the Department of Homeland Security and Immigration and Customs Enforcement, first-year international students can’t enter the country without taking at least one in-person class. That made participating in sports impossible for freshman international athletes at UCLA and LMU because their schools were offering only remote learning during the pandemic.

The athletes — 15 from UCLA and one from LMU — banded together to sue DHS and ICE in October. Their case went to district court in late November, where the judge ruled they were being harmed but couldn’t grant a preliminary injunction that would change the guidance. With the athletes already missing workouts and games, the case was sent to the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals, where in January the judges affirmed the district court’s original decision to not grant an injunction and sent it back to the district court for final judgment. The district court heard the case Feb. 22 and maintained that the athletes were being injured by the government’s guidance, but dismissed the claim of due process.

For columnist Dylan Hernández, it’s easy to see why UCLA gymnastics, and its push for social equality, is so popular with his 10-year-old daughter.

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The judge wrote in her decision that the athletes were “seeking to establish a voluntary connection rather than currently possessing one,” which did not entitle them to bring a constitutional claim as nonresident foreign nationals. The ruling said visas and access to the schools and athletic programs to which they were admitted were not a “protected liberty or property interest.”

The process took more than five months, and the uncertainty wore on the athletes who had already signed national letters of intent. For Gemma Potter, a basketball player from Australia, it proved too much. The 6-foot guard gave up her scholarship at UCLA and decided to pursue a professional career in Australia, where she had already won a championship in the country’s top league on a one-year amateur agreement with the WNBL’s Canberra Capitals in 2020.

“This has been one of the toughest decisions of my basketball career & life,” Potter wrote on Twitter on Feb. 6, “a decision that has been taken out of my control.”

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The call with Potter, her family and UCLA coaches to discuss the decision was tearful, Bruins coach Cori Close said.

“The saddest part is it could have been avoided,” Close said Monday. “There are a lot of things in life you just can’t avoid and you just gotta deal with them. I guess in actuality, that’s how it played out, but it didn’t have to play out that way. That’s the disappointing thing for me. … [Potter] was in a no-win situation.”

Potter signed with an agent at SIG Sports on Feb. 24, eliminating her from NCAA eligibility. The Bruins, who were without Potter and fellow Australian freshman Izzy Anstey, finished the regular season with a 14-4 overall record and placed third in the Pac-12 with a 12-4 conference record.

Close said UCLA is trying to appeal to the NCAA for a waiver that would allow Anstey, a 6-foot-4 forward, to train with an Australian professional team on an amateur contract like the one Potter used previously until she is allowed to join the Bruins.

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With coronavirus cases falling in the United States and vaccination rates increasing, the athletes are not expected to face similar hurdles for the next school year. In January, the University of California announced plans to bring students back to campuses for mostly in-person classes in the fall. LMU will open campus in a limited capacity March 8, but that will be too late for the one LMU athlete in the lawsuit, a women’s basketball player. The LMU women’s basketball team (5-18, 4-14 WCC) plays in the WCC tournament Thursday.

It’s still possible that President Biden‘s administration could change the policy and the athletes could enter the country this season. The athletes, who are not named in the lawsuit, also participate in rowing, soccer and volleyball. Their seasons have already started.


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