Official Commitment to Socially Distanced High School Sports Impact on College Recruiting
Photo Source: Chris Urbanowicz, Urbanowicz_Krzysztof_GOLF, Flickr (Feb. 24, 2014) (CC BY 2.0).
By: Eva Scherer* Posted: 11/12/2020
High school students look forward to many milestones during their senior year: driving to school, their final prom, and senior sports seasons to name a few. However, senior year looks quite different for the class of 2021, as many Pennsylvania schools have transitioned to online or partially online learning. Many high school sports programs have also adjusted in an attempt to avoid large gatherings and the transmission of COVID-19.
Pennsylvania Fall Sports Seasons
Across Pennsylvania, school districts are handling fall sports very differently, leading to confusion and frustration among players and coaches. The majority of Southeastern Pennsylvanian high schools have made the decision to opt-out of fall sports seasons, while much of the rest of the state is moving forward with their seasons at the recommendation of the Pennsylvania Interscholastic Athletic Association (“PIAA”). The PIAA is working closely with schools on “alternative solutions” to cancellation in an effort to preserve interscholastic competition while operating safely. The PIAA has been clear, however, that they will sponsor fall sports, prompting other areas of the state to move forward with fall season.
District 10 Golf Tournament
Schools electing to participate in fall sports have taken additional precautions to ensure safety, including limiting participation and staggering start times of the District 10 golf tournament beginning on October 1, 2020. Pennsylvania’s District 10 golf tournament reduced their attendance by half, excluding players that would have otherwise qualified, if not for the new precautionary measures. Four of these excluded participants, students from Conneaut Area Senior High School and Slippery Rock Area High School, brought claims in the Western District of Pennsylvania against the PIAA for violation of their constitutional right to equal protection due to the change in permitted tournament participants. Judge Baxter, the Judge overseeing the case, was faced with the question of whether the PIAA had a rational basis for their decision to limit the number of participants which ultimately excluded the plaintiffs.
The PIAA provided that their rational basis was the goal to limit the spread of COVID-19 through maintaining social distancing, resulting in the inability to accommodate the traditional number of players. They also pointed to other Pennsylvania court decisions that stated that the inability to participate in athletic events for a tournament, or even an entire season, did not produce “irreparable harm” that warranted injunction. Judge Baxter agreed with the PIAA’s assertion and found that the decision to limit participants, excluding the four plaintiffs from participation in the District 10 tournament, was a sufficient justification for the decision to amend the tournament rules and did not produce “irreparable harm.” Therefore, the court rejected the students’ claim that the reduction in participants violated their constitutional rights and found that the PIAA had a rational basis for their decision.
Impact on College Recruiting
Although this claim was rejected, the court did recognize the “disappointing and disheartening” results of the COVID-19 restrictions. As the world of high school sports operates differently due to the pandemic the country is facing, there will likely be changes to college recruiting this year as well. The NCAA has suspended all in person recruiting through January 1, 2021, leveling the playing field for schools who have opted out of a fall sports season and continuing to be mindful of spreading the disease. Much of college sports recruiting has shifted online, requiring athletes to keep their Next College Student Athlete profiles up to date with highlight videos, grade status, measurables, and other relevant information. Only twenty-seven percent of college coaches expect to maintain their previous recruiting budget for 2020-2021, likely requiring students to be more active in their connections with their target schools. Additionally, with the decision to grant college seniors an extra year of eligibility and the cancellation of some college programs entirely, it is expected that securing spots on college teams will be increasingly difficult for the next few recruiting classes.
High school students that are missing out on their fall sports season will have to rely heavily on their performance in prior years to earn one of these coveted spots. This is a difficult position to be in for those athletes who were hoping to gain the attention of collegiate level programs this year and will not be afforded that opportunity. The NCAA recommends that high school athletes focus on all levels of collegiate competition, including new programs and junior colleges, to increase their chances of playing at the next level.
As seen from the recent denial of the equal protection claim brought by Pennsylvania high school golfers, there likely are not legal ramifications for the increased difficulty and likely exclusion of otherwise qualified individuals from cancelled seasons and potentially future college teams due to changes in response to COVID-19. While this can be an extremely challenging time for those athletes who have worked immensely hard in order to compete in their respective sport at the next level, students need to be aware that the current global climate will require players to actively establish connections with college programs in a new way and not wait for offers to come to them.
*Staff Writer, Jeffrey S. Moorad Sports Law Journal, J.D. Candidate, May 2022, Villanova University Charles Widger School of Law.
 See generally School Health and Safety Plan Submitted to PDE, Pennsylvania Department of Education (last updated Oct. 8 2020) https://www.education.pa.gov/Schools/safeschools/emergencyplanning/COVID-19/SchoolReopeningGuidance/ReopeningPreKto12/SchoolHealthandSafetyPlans/Pages/default.aspx (requiring Pennsylvania school districts to provide health and safety plan outlining plans for remote or socially distanced learning, among other precautions); see also, Transition Plan for Phased Reopening, Tredyffrin/Easttown School District (last visited Oct. 8, 2020) https://www.tesd.net/Page/16600 (outlining Tredyffrin Easttown School District’s plan to implement hybrid learning in October 2020).
 See Guidance for All Sports Permitted to Operate During the COVID-19 Disaster Emergency to Ensure the Safety and Health of Employees, Athletes and the Public, Governor Tom Wolf (Oct. 6, 2020), https://www.governor.pa.gov/covid-19/sports-guidance/ (providing state regulations for resuming Pre-K to 12 school sports, recommending postponing until Jan. 1, 2020).
 See also, Press Release, PIAA (Aug. 21, 2020), http://www.piaa.org/assets/web/documents/PRESS_RELEASE_August_21_2020.pdf (stating return to fall sports should be in accordance with school health and safety plans and is permitted under PIAA regulations).
 See Phil Anastasia, The ground keeps shifting under high school sports due to COVID-19, Phila. Inquirer (Aug 29, 2020), https://www.inquirer.com/high-school-sports/pennsylvania/southeastern-pennsylvania-high-school-sports-covid-19-pandemic-20200829.html (enumerating how different areas of Pennsylvania address COVID-19 concerns individually is leading to varying results).
 See id. (explaining schools that have elected to postpone fall sports seasons are working with PIAA on implementing these alternative solutions in hopes of remaining safe and working towards starting seasons).
 See id. (resulting in “patchwork” of participation throughout Pennsylvania).
 See PIAA District 10 Tournament Information http://www.piaadistrict10.org/tournaments (last visited Oct. 8, 2020) (outlining requirements and limits for boy and girl participants in tournament).
 See Matthew Santoni, Pa. Judge Says School League’s Virus Cuts “Painful” But Legal, Law360 (Oct. 2, 2020), https://www.law360.com/articles/1316223/pa-judge-says-school-league-s-virus-cuts-painful-but-legal (explaining changes to attendance occurred one week prior to tournament).
 See A.M. v. Pa. Interscholastic Athletic Ass’n, Inc., No. 1:20-cv-290-SPB, 2020 WL 5877617 (W.D.P.A. Oct. 1, 2020) (providing that three plaintiffs were seniors, meaning this would be their last year of high school competition).
 See id. (stating that to prevail, Plaintiffs needed to show “(1) they are likely to succeed on the merits of their claims, (2) they are likely to suffer irreparable harm without relief (3) the balance of harms favors them, and (4) relief is in the public interest”).
 See id. at 3 (providing decision was not made haphazardly and was not “based on whim or conjecture”).
 See id. at 4 (referencing cases that did not find exclusion from high school sports competitions amounted to irreparable harm).
 See id. (finding that adherence to self-imposed COVID-19 restrictions to maintain safety at tournaments was proper rational basis for exclusion).
 See id. at 5 (denying plaintiffs’ claim against PIAA).
 See id. (recognizing students have lost a lot due to pandemic restrictions but this did not amount to an equal protection violation).
 See College Coach Insights on Recruiting During Coronavirus, Next C. Student Athlete Sports https://www.ncsasports.org/coronavirus-sports/college-coach-insights-covid-19 (last visited Oct. 8, 2020) (discussing uncertainty regarding all of college sports from competition to recruiting).
 See id. (interviewing coaches that claim they have narrowed their contact to top prospects identified prior to this year).
 See id. (finding college coach logins to NCSA portal increased twenty percent since March 2020).
 See id. (providing scholarship funds will likely not see significant decrease serving as bright spot for recruiting changes).
 See id. (identifying forty three percent of coaches in applicable spring sports anticipate seniors to return for extra year of eligibility).
 See Josh Moody, What COVID-19 Means for College Sports, Recruiting, U.S. News (July 24, 2020) https://www.usnews.com/education/best-colleges/articles/what-the-coronavirus-means-for-college-sports-and-recruiting (identifying season cancellations result in less game film and opportunity to “set themselves apart in a competitive marketplace of talented athletes”).
 See id. (encouraging students whose high school sports careers have been cut short to devote this time to education).
 See College Coach Insights on Recruiting During Coronavirus, supra note 16 (noting students should broaden scope of interest for schools in order to have best opportunity to continue playing).
 See Lee Green, Sports Law Issues Related to COVID-19 Pandemic, NFHS (May 13, 2020), https://www.nfhs.org/articles/sports-law-issues-related-to-covid-19-pandemic/ (outlining many cases consistent with Judge Baker’s decision that pandemic restrictions provided rational basis for cancellation or exclusion from high school sporting events).
 See Moody, supra note 21 (encouraging using social media to garner attention of prospective coaches and recruiters).