School Colors: The Arbitrary, Inequitable Rule of High School Sports Associations

Andre Bell, Jr.; COVID; Basketball; Student Athlete; James Wiseman; TSSAA; Memphis Secondary

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My name is Kevin Christopher. I’m a patent attorney in the rural Tennessee town of Cookeville (aka the CrossFit capital of the world). A pre-COVID California expat, I relocated a few years back from Oakland. Because I’m known to enjoy a good pickup game, I was contacted recently to help a young man who’d been ruled ineligible to play his senior season of high school basketball. In doing so, I’ve come to learn a lot about the inequities of high school sports regulation.

Meet two families, the Whites and the Blacks.

Mr. and Mrs. White have college degrees as their parents did before them. They want to see their teenage daughter Alice attend the best possible college, and they have the means to send her nearly anywhere she is accepted. To best position her for success, they transfer Alice before her sophomore year to a nearby school with a greater selection of advanced placement (AP) courses. Alice’s new school appreciates her intellectual curiosity and welcomes her into its honors cohort. Alice is on her way to a top college.

Ms. Black is a single mother who never attended college. Her daughter Alicia is a promising volleyball player but plays in an inferior league at a run-down school. Ms. Black cannot afford college for Alicia, but hopes that Alicia can earn a scholarship playing volleyball. Prior to Alicia’s senior year, Ms. Black manages to place her in a charter school with a robust athletics program. Here, Alicia will have the opportunity to demonstrate to colleges her ability to play against elite competition. Unfortunately, the state high school athletic association rules Alicia ineligible to play and Alicia is left without opportunity to earn a scholarship. Alicia is unlikely to attend college.

The difference in approaches to Black and White education governs Andre Bell, Jr. and countless others’ stories.

Andre Bell, Jr. is a model student-athlete. He has been named captain of his high school basketball team for demonstrating leadership on and off the court. Unfortunately, this team captain can’t actually play because the Tennessee Secondary School Athletic Association (TSSAA) has ruled him ineligible. You see, Andre committed the unforgivable sin of transferring from one school to another for academic and family reasons. He didn’t transfer because he was recruited, or for more playing time, or because he favored certain jerseys over others. While there were several reasons behind his transfer, the primary reason was COVID-19, the same global pandemic that has upended most readers’ holidays and workplaces and caused the loss of many loved ones.

Andre’s path in life has taken him from Chicago to Missouri, twice over, before his 2019 move to Cookeville, Tennessee. Partially due to his many moves Andre was academically delayed upon arriving in Cookeville. In meeting with Upperman High School prior to registration, Andre’s family was assured that through hard work and attendance in Upperman’s 2019 and 2020 summer programs, Andre would be able to graduate in the spring of 2021 with his peers.

Andre did his part. He passed his courses and completed the 2019 summer school program. He accomplished this despite working through a new environment where, unlike Chicago, less than 3% of his classmates were African-American. Unfortunately, in May of this year Andre’s family was informed that due to COVID restrictions Upperman could not offer the full summer schedule Andre needed to graduate on time. In response, Andre’s father transferred him to nearby Cookeville High School where Andre was provided an opportunity to take equivalent summer courses.

In July, the athletic director at Upperman notified the TSSAA that Andre was in good standing and that his transfer was not for athletic reasons. Nevertheless, the TSSAA ruled Andre ineligible under its “one-year” rule prohibiting varsity play within one year of transferring from one Tennessee high school to another. Cookeville High requested a waiver and was denied. Appealing to the TSSAA Board of Governors, Andre’s father relayed the factors behind the transfer: the lack of diversity at Upperman (6% minority) compared to his new school (22%); the logistical benefits to his large family with limited means of transportation; that both schools supported the transfer; and most importantly, that COVID precluded Andre’s opportunity to graduate on time at Upperman.

The TSSAA Board met behind closed doors, denied Andre’s appeal, and in issuing a bland notice refused to comment or release details of its vote. The 12-member TSSAA Board, which sits in review of athletes of diverse sex and color across Tennessee, is comprised of 10 white males. Maybe this is insignificant. Maybe 6 of 10 white members voted in favor of Andre but he still lost the day. Or, perhaps the viewpoint limitations of the unrepresentative Board consequently resulted in a skewed vote. Andre should know, but because the Board withholds its details he is left to wonder.

Recent NBA draft pick James Wiseman suffered a similarly secretive assembly when transferring during his high school career. The Wiseman experience has led the Shelby County Schools (Memphis) district to threaten breaking free of the TSSAA, a harbinger by the state’s largest school district. Shelby County Superintendent Dr. Joris Ray has vocalized Andre Bell, Jr’s predicament — that the TSSAA’s rules are inequitable and penalize students of color from impoverished neighborhoods.

For 50 years Tennessee courts have refused to interfere with TSSAA rulings, claiming that as a voluntary association the schools and players have agreed to be bound by the TSSAA’s actions and processes, irrespective of cause or effect. The cracks in this fortress of futility are beginning to show. As Chancellor Jim Kyle said of his decision to overturn the TSSAA’s ruling against James Wiseman, “Taking a privilege away from an individual behind closed doors may have worked in 1968, but that is not where we are today as a society.” Unfortunately, even in jurisdictions where courts do review ineligibility decisions, cases are often thrown out with sports play being considered a privilege, well short of a protectable, constitutional guarantee.

The reality is that sports are a privilege for some, a legitimate and honorable means to advancement for others.

It’s past time for our high school sports associations to operate representatively and transparently. There is a way to balance the interests of limiting recruiting and coach shopping with facilitating opportunities for young men and women to experience all development and leadership opportunities available to them. In the case of Andre Bell, Jr., simply trying to accomplish a goal of graduating with his peers has resulted in being stripped of the ability to represent his school, play the game he loves, earn a mark of leadership, and put his best foot forward for college admission. All without the decency of an explanation.

It’s time to change, it’s time to be vocal.

Kevin Christopher is principal of Rockridge Venture Law, a B Corp intellectual property and technology law firm. Kevin is pro bono counsel to the Bell family and is seeking Andre’s reinstatement. He can be contacted at kevin@rockridgelaw.com.

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