Pole vaulter loses bid to return to the team

The father of a high school pole vaulter who was suspended from the team, sued the school district and requested a restraining order that would have allowed the student to return to the team.  The father claimed that twice during practice, the student was injured when he was instructed to practice pole vault in the rain.  Later, when the coach asked the student to vault in the rain, per his father’s instructions, the student declined to do so.  As a result he was suspended from the team.

The student’s mother got involved and the athletic director explained that if a student doesn’t practice, he can’t compete.

The father then escalated things, emailing members of the school board and the superintendent asking them to change their policy to prohibit pole vaulting in the rain and to allow students to refrain from unsafe practices without punishment.

The student was allowed to compete, but refused to use the pole vault the coached asked him to use.  He didn’t win.  The father and son questioned the coach’s knowledge about pole vaulting, and the student said he didn’t think the coach knew what he was doing.

The next day was no different.  The student told the coaches he would not follow instructions from the high school coach because it conflicted with coaching at his private club. The student was removed from the team.  According to the superintendent, if the student did not practice, he would not be permitted to compete and that the administration trusted the judgment of its coaches. The father tried to take it to the board, but his policy proposals were rejected.

On to federal court.  The suit claimed that father and son were exercising their constitutional right of free speech by communicating with school officials and administration regarding his proposed policy changes. He claimed his son’s removal from the pole vaulting team was in retaliation for exercising their First Amendment rights.

It is well settled that students do not “shed their constitutional rights to freedom of speech or expression at the schoolhouse gate.” Likewise, parents have the right to express their opinions and advocate for the rights of their children. These rights, however, are not absolute.  In fact, school officials may regulate speech that materially and substantially interferes with the requirements of appropriate discipline in the operation of the school.  That’s the Tinker standard we all know well.  The court sided with the coaches, stating:

High school football coaches, as well as government employers, have a need to maintain order and discipline. Requiring coaches to tolerate attacks on their authority would effectively strip them of their ability to lead. It would also do a great disservice to other players who wish to play on a team free from strife and disunity; a team cannot function as a unit with groups of players and the coaches pulling in opposite directions.

Bottom line: when players voluntarily join a team, they implicitly agree to accept the coach’s authority.  When the government manages a voluntary program it may restrict conduct, including speech, that threatens the purpose of the program.  Tinker does not require teachers to surrender control of the classroom to students, and it does not require coaches to surrender control of the team to players.

It was undisputed that the student, per his father’s instructions, refused to abide by the coaches’ rules regarding practice. Of course, it is reasonable to conclude that a player’s refusal to follow such rules would lead to disunity on the team and resentment from the players who agreed to be subjected to the rules.  Moreover, it is unlikely that dismissing an athlete who refuses to practice on account of his own personal assessment that the conditions were unsafe would run afoul of the First Amendment.  Because the student could not show that he would likely succeed on his claims, he was not entitled to a restraining order that would have reinstated him as a pole vaulter.

The case is from Ohio and is Stokey v. N. Canton Sch. Dist., No. 5:18-CV-1011, 2018 WL 2234953, at *5–10 (N.D. Ohio May 15, 2018).