Brentwood Academy v. TSSAA is a nationally significant court case that answers the question as to whether or not a high school athletic association can prohibit recruiting without violating a school’s First Amendment rights. Located just south of Nashville, Brentwood Academy, the plaintiff, is a small private school with a well-respected reputation for winning on the football field. The Tennessee Secondary School Athletic Association (TSSAA) is the administrator that oversees high school athletics in the state of Tennessee.
The conflict between Brentwood Academy and TSSAA began in 1997 after Coach Carlton Flatt of the academy sent out letters to twelve eighth graders inviting them to spring football practice. According to TSSAA bylaws, the letter represented an illegal act of recruitment because the boys were not attending Brentwood Academy when the letters were mailed. Although they were enrolled at the school for the following fall, TSSAA defines enrollment as having attended three days of school and bars coaches from contacting students prior to enrollment. Therefore, Coach Flatt had violated the recruiting rule that prohibits “undue influence . . . to secure or retain a student for athletic purposes.” Brentwood Academy’s punishment for this violation was a ban on state tournament play for two years, probation for four years, and a $3,000 fine.
The school appealed the decision to the TSSAA Board of Controls, but the board upheld the initial punishment, which led Brentwood Academy to take legal action, claiming that TSSAA was acting as a state-sanctioned governing body and had thus infringed on the school’s First Amendment rights by forbidding the letters to the students. In 1998 U.S. District Court Judge Todd Campbell ruled that TSSAA was a state actor; however, the U.S. Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals overturned that decision. Brentwood Academy then sought the first discretionary review in this case by the U.S. Supreme Court. The review was granted and, in 2001, a closely divided court found that because of the “pervasive entwinement of public institutions and public officials in its composition and workings” TSSAA was indeed a state actor.
By this time, many parties were interested in the case since the decision that TSSAA was a state actor could lead to the exemption of such groups from compliance with the federal equal-protection laws. However, the Supreme Court review was only the first round through the legal system. The case was returned to the U.S. District Court, where the question of whether a violation of rights had occurred had to be answered. Both the district court and the court of appeals agreed that TSSAA’s decision had violated Brentwood Academy’s First Amendment rights.
In 2006 TSSAA appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court. The justices in a unanimous decision reversed the previous rulings and found that TSSAA had not violated Brentwood Academy’s First Amendment rights. The justices determined that since Brentwood Academy had voluntarily joined TSSAA, knowing in advance its anti-recruiting rules, the academy had forfeited its First Amendment rights. Like all other members of the association, according to the decision, the academy had to adhere to the regulations set forth by TSSAA or face expulsion from the association.
The two Supreme Court decisions have produced important legal precedents for TSSAA and for high school athletic associations around the country. Yet, at this writing, the case is still in litigation. As of 2008, Brentwood Academy is awaiting a hearing on antitrust and equal protection claims, and depending on the outcome of that hearing, this case could remain in court for several more years.