Private v. public school sports legal fight: Ohio Supreme Court weighs in

The Ohio Supreme Court has weighed in on a lawsuit filed by Catholic schools in southwest Ohio challenging new rules intended to level the playing field between private and public school athletic teams.

The court ruled 5-2 on Tuesday that Hamilton County Common Pleas Court is the right place for that legal challenge to be considered.

Roger Bacon High School and its affiliation, the Greater Catholic League Co-Ed, say in a lawsuit that they are unfairly impacted by the rules, which took effect for the 2017-18 school year. Last year, the league won a temporary restraining order in Hamilton County Common Pleas Court while Judge Robert Ruehlman considers the case. The order blocked the new rules from going into place while the lawsuit is ongoing.

“Despite the OHSAA’s attempt to silence them, Roger Bacon and the GCL Co-Ed schools are excited to finally have their day in court and look forward to further advocating for their students before Judge Ruehlman,” said Terry Coates, attorney for Roger Bacon High School and the GCL Co-Ed.

Last year the OHSAA asked the supreme court for and was granted an emergency stay of the temporary restraining order, but ultimately the high court decided this week not to halt the case from going forward in Hamilton County Common Pleas Court.

“The OHSAA is aware of (Tuesday’s) supreme court ruling and we are reviewing all of our options,” said Tim Stried, the OHSAA director of communications. “At this time, we have no further comment.”

The GCL Co-Ed member schools are: Kettering Alter, Hamilton Badin, Dayton Carroll, Dayton Chaminade Julienne, Bishop Fenwick, Cincinnati McNicholas, Cincinnati Purcell Marian and Roger Bacon.

The Ohio High School Athletic Association is a private organization that oversees sports competition for some 1,600 public and private junior and senior high schools.

It came up with “competitive balance rules” to address complaints that private schools won a disproportionate number of state championships because they can draw students from a wider geographic footprint than public schools. Private schools represent 16 percent of the OHSAA membership but have won nearly 43 percent of state championships across all sports.

»Related: 7 things to know about competitive balance rules

The rules are an effort by the state athletic association to “level the playing field” among all sports teams, girls and boys. Every player on a roster is ranked with a numerical formula consisting of school size, residence and a student’s secondary school history. The total combined numerical value among students will determine which division a team will be assigned for the postseason.

In a dissenting opinion, Chief Justice Maureen O’Connor said that the temporary restraining order “will throw many, if not all, of the 809 third-party member schools’ schedules and postseason tournament assignments into disarray.”

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The temporary restraining order will eliminate current postseason tournament assignments, forcing fall sports postseason schedules to be re-worked on the fly, the dissenting opinion said. “The TRO is therefore an extremely disruptive act that, if permitted to take effect, will upend the status quo and immediately cause turmoil in high-school sports across the state.”

The majority opinion, though, called that “speculative, at best” and said that the OHSAA could make adjustments as needed.

“We look forward to restoring fairness and common sense to competition in Ohio high school sports,” said Tom Donnelly, GCL Co-Ed commissioner.

Greater Western Ohio Conference Commissioner Eric Spahr said the new Miami Valley League will feel an impact. The MVL is made up of 10 schools that split from the GWOC. Competitive balance does not affect most Division I schools, the largest of all divisions.

“For the GWOC, there’s not going to be any impact,” Spahr said. “For the Miami Valley League, there’s certainly going to be a little bit of impact. Some of those schools who moved up will move back down and it’ll actually be a domino effect in terms of schools moving up and down (in divisions).”

Spahr also believes OHSAA has not come up “with a system that addresses the real issue.”

“These numbers, it’s a very convoluted process to even follow up or understand where the students are coming from for open enrollment and public schools. I don’t know if the process is any better than it was when it was, ‘Here are the numbers and let’s go play ball.’ You still have to show up. You still have to play the game. I don’t know that the process that’s currently in place addresses that,” said Spahr.

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