Officials with two high school sports associations worry a bill passed by the state Senate on Tuesday could prevent high school sports next year.
Sen. Dan Claitor, R-Baton Rouge, authored a bill that says no public or private high schools that receive public money can be a member of any organization that does not use third-party arbitration to settle player eligibility disputes.
Neither the Louisiana High School Athletic Association nor the Mississippi Athletic Independent Schools, which has Louisiana members, use a third party arbitrator to settle such disputes.
Claitor’s Senate bill 633 narrowly passed the Senate by a 21-17 vote. It now awaits introduction in the House where it will likely be sent to the Education Committee.
LHSAA President and Ouachita High School Principal Todd Guice said the LHSAA could not comply with such a law, leaving a void in what agency would organize and regulate high school sports.
“I have concerns that if passed, this bill could halt athletics in Louisiana due to the fact that schools would have no alternate association to join,” Guice said.
Guice said the financial burden of arbitration would be an insurmountable obstacle. 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.
Louisiana Independent School Association President and River Oaks Principal Tom Middleton said MAIS schools are also opposed to the bill.
Middleton said the MAIS has an intense appeals process. Cases first appear before an eligibility committee, then they go to a full association commission, and then finally to the Executive Committee.
“I think it would be a waste of money and time to include another person when an appeal has already been heard by three different sets of people,” Middleton said.
Claitor said Guice’s prediction goes too far and said arbitration can lower costs, especially for poor students who can’t afford attorneys.
Claitor, an attorney, said there’s lots of room for negotiation in reducing arbitration costs between the two parties involved.
“I don’t know how (the LHSAA) makes the jump to the sky is falling,” Claitor said.
The bill calls for using arbitrators qualified by the standards of the American Arbitration Association. A request for statistical data, including average costs, from the association was not immediately answered.
Though not mentioned in the legislation, Episcopal High School of Baton Rouge student Clement Mubungirwa lies at the heart of the bill.
Mubungirwa turns 19 years old in July, which makes him ineligible to play high school sports per LHSAA rules. His appeal to the LHSAA Executive Committee was denied in an 11-8 vote despite the compelling circumstances surrounding his case.
Originally from the Congo, his father was killed and he and his family once lived in a Ugandan refugee camp. He eventually came to the United States, but he was far behind educationally.
“His story is a compelling story. If ever there should be an exception, it should be for this kid,” Claitor said.
Claitor said if his bill becomes law, there’s still no guarantee Mubungirwa will be able to play, but future cases will be heard in a more fair manner. He said the LHSAA’s appeals process makes the association the judge, jury and executioner, which creates mistrust from those in the process.
“I’m not wearing the uniform of the enemy. I’m trying to find a resolution that works for both sides,” Claitor said. “I understand their argument, and it sounds good at first. But considering their history, there needs to be a pathway to a solution just short of going to court.”
The Senate passed the bill almost entirely with support from Baton Rouge and New Orleans-based senators. The entire northeastern Louisiana delegation voted against the bill.
Sen. Mike Walsworth, R-West Monroe, opposed the bill in the Education Committee and then again in the full Senate. He said while Mubungirwa’s circumstance are unfortunate, the LHSAA has rules. He said to his knowledge the LHSAA has never granted an exception to a 19-year-old.
Walsworth also said lawmakers should abide by a February 2013 Supreme Court ruling that stated the LHSAA was a private entity and not subject to micromanagement by the state.
“We’re going to wind up in court again,” Walsworth said. “The Lgislature can’t seem to get out of running the athletic association. They didn’t get the ruling they wanted, so they’re trying to go around it.”
Walsworth said he trusted Guice’s assessment of the predicted fallout if the bill becomes law.
Claitor didn’t see the Supreme Court ruling to be an issue in this bill. He said the state wouldn’t be dictating LHSAA rules, but it would be asserting its authority on how schools under its perview would be spending public funds.