A bill that high school sports officials believe could seriously threaten the future of athletics in Louisiana is one signature away from becoming law.
The House voted 55-38 Thursday to pass a bill restricting schools that receive public funds from participating in any interscholastic athletic organization that does not use third-party arbitration to resolve eligibility disputes.
Senate Bill 633 by Sen. Dan Claitor, R-Baton Rouge, now heads to Gov. Bobby Jindal’s desk for his consideration.
The Louisiana High School Athletic Association and the Mississippi Association of Independent Schools oppose the bill. Neither use arbitration to resolve eligibility disputes and instead rely on a lengthy internal appeals process.
“If the governor signs this into law, high schools in Louisiana will have no association to belong to,” said LHSAA President and Ouachita High School Principal Todd Guice. “It’s disappointing. I’m not sure where we go from here.”
Claitor authored the bill after the LHSAA ruled Episcopal High School of Baton Rouge athlete Clement Mubungirwa was too old to play sports next year.
The LHSAA Executive Committee has not reversed its decision.
“To affect an entire state and two athletic associations over one issue seems pretty narrow-sighted to me,” said Tom Middleton, president of the Louisiana Independent School Association and River Oaks principal.
Claitor said the issue has grown beyond Mubungirwa and into a way to provide financially strapped students and families a more fair and inexpensive way to plead their cases.
“The LHSAA is obviously not happy with the result, but it’s not about that kid anymore, and it hasn’t been for a long time,” Claitor said. “I would hope they’d give the kid a chance at arbitration, but if they don’t, down the road it’ll give some other poor kid a change at an impartial review.”
Guice said he and others in the LHSAA will discuss how to move forward if Jindal signs the bill. He said even if the LHSAA allowed Mubungirwa to play, the association would still not be in compliance with the law because the Executive Committee cannot change the association’s rules.
The full association of member principals would have to change the rule to allow for arbitration or allow 19-year-olds to play. The full association does not meet again until January.
Guice has said previously the costs of arbitration would prevent the LHSAA from complying with the law. He said their research shows arbitration costs an average of $4,500 per case and could get as expensive as $6,000 per case.
The LHSAA heard about 475 appeals last year. Using the arbitration average costs, that amounts to about $2.1 million, which is more than half of the association’s total operating budget.
Middleton said he he would speak with MAIS Executive Director Shane Blanton about how to move forward. He said the issue will likely be a major topic at next week’s MAIS annual administrator’s conference.
Louisiana schools in the MAIS might be open to their own set of issues if the MAIS does not comply with the law. Mississippi and its schools are not bound by Louisiana law. It’s possible the MAIS, also worried about arbitration costs, could decide against changing its rule to allow for arbitration.
“It sounds like it might be a lucrative job for somebody to get into the business of handling high school sports disputes,” Middleton said.
Claitor has disputed the expected expense of any arbitration. He said he expects the LHSAA will sue.
“They’ll go out there and waste money on the issue rather than focusing on the kids. The battle, if there ever was one, is over. It’s time for everyone to lay down their arms and get focused on the children,” Claitor said.