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Judge to Parent: Coaches, Not Courts, Decide Who's on the Soccer Team

3 Oct, 2018

By: Mary Helen Sprecher
Mom of Missouri High School Student Had Claimed Son Would Suffer "Irreparable Harm" by Being Left Off Roster

No suit for you.

A federal judge in Missouri has blocked a soccer mom who tried to sue in order to force a high school to put her son on the junior varsity team after he failed at tryouts for the varsity squad.

U.S. District Court Judge John A. Ross rejected the request of the woman, who demanded the temporary restraining order against Ladue Horton Watkins High School.

The woman had claimed her son would face “irreparable harm” if school officials failed to put him on the team immediately.

The scene played out in the wealthy St. Louis suburb of Ladue. According to an article in the Riverfront Times, the mother, only identified as “Jane Doe,” filed the suit, saying that the soccer coach's decision to cut her son from the junior varsity team last month amounted to age discrimination. (In her court filing, the boy's mother asked the judge for permission to identify her son by the pseudonym John Doe because, in "challenging the actions of a popular coach," she feared her son would be subjected to bullying and harassment if people knew his real name).

It all started when the boy, in his junior year, failed to make the varsity soccer team. The coach had already decided against putting upperclassmen on the junior varsity team, which left the student without a place on either team.

The mother, in her court filing, claimed this was illegal since the policy was not in place for younger boys, or for female athletes, and that it violated both age discrimination laws and Title IX. The St. Louis Post Dispatch said the suit claimed the district had historically let female juniors play on the girls' JV team.

Dave Aronberg, the school’s soccer coach, wrote to the boy’s mother with the following explanation:

We essentially had 40 kids trying to make 24 spots on the varsity team. (The student in question) was right on the bubble of making the team this year and has some impressive attributes including his attacking mentality and straight line speed. However, there were a few holes in his game including technical ability and game decision making that put him behind a number of kids. In the end, there were just too many kids who had a little better soccer skill and soccer IQ for him to make the [varsity] team.

Not good enough an explanation, claimed the would-be soccer mom. She also did not buy the coach’s explanation that spots on the JV squad were reserved for younger players, that they might develop the skills needed to become varsity players someday.

According to a local television station, the family first appealed the coach’s ruling to district administrators, who sided with the coach. The family then appealed to the superintendent, who also sided with the coach. The family then filed a complaint with the Department of Education's Office of Civil Rights, but the office couldn't force the school to put the boy on a team. So the family turned to federal court.

In court filings, the district said the boy was not put on JV again because it "was not best for the competitive development of the players or the program." The district also said that being on a sports team is a privilege, not a right, for the students. No student has a constitutionally protected right to be on a soccer team, the district added.

And Judge Ross agreed, according to the Riverfront Times. Ross said he was unconvinced Ladue had a hard-and-fast policy as the lawsuit claimed, much less that it would be age or gender discrimination if it did. And, he told the mother pointedly, it was Aronberg, not the courts, who should be deciding who plays on the team.

The courts have previously found that participation in school sports is "not a property right but a privilege," he noted. And beyond that, he wrote, he found Aronberg persuasive in his argument against adding extra players to the JV squad. 

"Coach Aronberg stated that the JV coach preferred a smaller team and that, in any event, the program simply could not accommodate every student who tried out due to practical restrictions like the number of uniforms available," the judge wrote in his summary.

The boy's stepfather is one of two attorneys who filed the suit. Prior to the delivery of the verdict, he said his firm had racked up about $100,000 in attorney's fees, as he has been working on the case since August. While the lawsuit is still active, the judge's denial of the request for a temporary restraining order has taken the case off the fast track. And with the soccer season so close to its late October conclusion, the court's decision amounts to a victory for the school district. 

It’s not the first time parents have turned to the courts to try to resolve problems with coaches. SDM first covered the issue in 2015, but recently, the number of cases has all but exploded. According to a 2017 article in ABC News, “In the last year, parents have filed more than 200 non-injury-related sports lawsuits against coaches, leagues and school districts in the United States, according to Gil Fried, a University of New Haven professor who specializes in sports law.”

And many of these, it seems, are parents suing because of a lack of playing time. Last year, a former youth baseball player sued his coach, alleging he was benched in retaliation for not participating in a fund raiser. The news, carried in the San Gabriel Valley Tribune, stated the player’s family was comparing benching to bullying. The price tag the teen and his family felt was fair compensation: at least $150,000.

The ABC News article lists a cross-section of suits brought by parents. Some claimed their children’s futures were being ruined because they were not able to be seen by college scouts. Others, however, claim bigger aspirations were derailed by a lack of playing time:

The family felt James Logan High School Coach Blake Chong may have cost their son not just a scholarship, but an NBA career. Marc Martinez sued his son's baseball coach, John Emme, twice. Both suits were dismissed, but now Emme has taken the offensive. He is countersuing both Martinez and his attorney, claiming malicious prosecution.

Some families have claimed emotional pain and suffering; in one suit, a youth hockey player told reporters he never wanted to play again because he did not receive the MVP award at the end of the season, despite the fact that he led in scoring and assists.

And it’s not just the school setting where this is occurring. Washington Post article noted that a club volleyball player and her parents sued after she was refused the opportunity to switch from one club to another, after the club with which she had originally signed could not give her the playing time she felt she needed.

Why the rise in lawsuits? According to Appenzeller, it’s simply a reflection of any other behavior in the news.

"They pretty much mirror society today. Everybody feels that if they are wronged, they need compensation. We have a lot of cases where people think their son or daughter should be on varsity, and when they are put on JV team, they sue."

Or in the case of the Ladue soccer mom, when they don’t make the JV team instead.

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