CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- With an appeal of the court order allowing four South Charleston football players to play in the Class AAA championship game expected to come Thursday morning, the West Virginia Secondary School Activities Commission finds itself in a familiar setting: the state Supreme Court.
The current legal fight over suspensions handed down by the SSAC following an on-field brawl at the end of the semifinal between South Charleston and Hurricane High School has produced two orders from two different state circuit courts.
One, issued by Kanawha Circuit Judge Carrie Webster, bars the SSAC from enforcing its suspension of four South Charleston athletes until after the AAA final. The other, handed down Tuesday by Brooke Circuit Judge Arthur Recht, forbids the SSAC from holding the championship game until the litigation and disciplinary issues surrounding South Charleston's team have been resolved.
While some may grumble that the courtroom is no place for decisions regarding high school athletics, the SSAC has a long history of legal clashes that have resulted in several noteworthy opinions from the state Supreme Court.
In 2007, the SSAC suspended Huntington High School basketball standout (and current NBA star) O.J. Mayo for four games -- two for his ejection after earning two technical fouls, and two for making physical contact with a referee. Cabell Circuit Judge Dan O'Hanlon granted a temporary injunction, which prevented the SSAC from enforcing its penalties.
Mayo eventually agreed to a 13-day suspension from school for bumping the official (which kept him out of three games), and the SSAC agreed to let him serve its automatic two-game suspension for being ejected over the same period. But when O'Hanlon issued a written order in the case months later, he concluded that the SSAC's lack of an appeals process for athletes to dispute their punishment was unconstitutional.
"The failure of the WVSSAC to establish an appeal process available before enforcement of the punishment is clearly wrong. The current regulations are repugnant to any notion of due process," O'Hanlon wrote. "Balancing the mandatory, unreviewable sanction of a multi-contest suspension against the limited resources necessary to ensure equity and an opportunity for a student-athlete to be heard results in this court's finding that the appeal process is indeed lacking in fundamental fairness."
The state Supreme Court reversed O'Hanlon, ruling that voluntary participation in interscholastic athletics does not rise to the level of a constitutionally protected interest.
"Not only do we find it unwise to proceed down the path suggested by the trial court -- inviting courts to review an official's judgment call in assessing technical fouls -- but the foundational underpinnings upon which the trial court based its rulings on the issue of due process are fatally flawed," the Supreme Court's opinion states.
Four years earlier, the SSAC appealed an injunction issued by Wyoming Circuit Judge John S. Hrko that allowed Wyoming East High School football player Jeremy Hedinger to keep playing until the SSAC provided him the opportunity to object to his suspension. Hedinger was ejected for allegedly punching an opposing player, which he denied, claiming that a video of the game clearly showed that he did not commit unsportsmanlike conduct.