By John Raffel
It's been a year since the United State Supreme Court refused to hear a discrimination suit against the Michigan High School Athletic Association (MHSAA) for its alignment of girls and boys sports seasons.
And even though the MHSAA has changed its seasons to conform with court rulings, a recent federal district court decision on attorneys' fees has confronted the association with major financial issues.
The bottom line on how much the MHSAA owes the lawyers for the plaintiffs, Communities for Equity, a west Michigan-based organization that brought the suit against the state organization in 1997, is an estimation in excess of $7 million. The MHSAA is considering an appeal of the fees decision and is also seeking bankruptcy protection.
The MHSAA has declined to be interviewed on the case, but executive director Jack Roberts recently released a statement on the matter and indicated the association would seek bankruptcy protection.
Rulings from the federal district court office in Kalamazoo and the court of appeals in Cincinnati ordered the MHSAA to change girls basketball from fall to winter and girls volleyball from winter to fall. Also flip-flopping were boys golf in the spring and girls in the fall, and girls tennis in the spring and boys tennis in the fall.
The courts favored the CFE complaint that seasons were aligned in such way that it discriminated against girls. The MHSAA argued that the seasons were aligned by a high majority preference of schools and was done in such a way to enhance participation in the various sports.
The association noted that when volleyball was switch to the fall and girls basketball to the winter for the 2007-08 season, participation numbers dropped dramatically in both.
"The sports seasons decisions were made by the schools of Michigan themselves; and the placements of MHSAA tournaments have always followed those local choices,” Roberts said in his statement. “At trial, school people (not MHSAA staff) testified to the merits of their decisions. On appeal, arguments on behalf of those decisions were briefed by school organizations, including the Michigan Association of School Boards, Michigan Association of Secondary School Principals, and Michigan Interscholastic Athletic Administrators Association.
"We are where we are today because this is a Democratic organization, and schools count on their elected representatives and leaders to promote and defend their decisions. We accept that plaintiffs acted on principle they believed in; it is unfortunate that defendants are being penalized for doing the same.”
When the MHSAA decided to take the matter to court rather than settle, the association noted that unlike other state organizations across the country, Michigan had the resources to attack the legal process. Kristen Galles, the Washington, D.C., attorney, who was the main legal voice for the CFE during the court process, has called upon Michigan schools to replace the existing MHSAA leadership.
But even many girls basketball coaches said they wished the seasons would have stayed the same.
“This was not a good decision for Michigan girls basketball,” Howard City Tri-County head coach Wes Zerlaut said.
“The objections I had to playing the same season with the boys is we had to stagger our playing dates each week and there was no consistency on when we played,” Belding head coach Paul Ballard said.
Girls tennis players were enraged when their seasons were switched to the spring when Michigan weather is usually not as warm as it is during the fall.
“I liked the previous season we had,” Greenville senior Ashleigh Deane said. “We could play all summer, and then go into our season. Now, we have to stay inside during the winter and go into cold weather for our outdoor season in April.”
"During the long history of the sports seasons litigation, MHSAA staff were able to serve schools without distraction, and the cost of the defense of schools' sports seasons schedule was reimbursed through two inexpensive insurance policies the MHSAA had purchased,” Roberts said in his statement. "The MHSAA also prepared for the possibility that, if that defense was unsuccessful, a petition for reimbursement of plaintiffs' attorneys' reasonable fees and costs would follow. In considering exposure, we were guided by the result of a decade-long Title IX lawsuit after which a university settled plaintiffs' attorneys' fees at approximately $1 million.
“When the petition for fees and expenses was filed in our case for more than $5 million, MHSAA contingency planning was guided by the affirmative action case involving the University of Michigan where the demand for attorneys' fees was reduced approximately 40 percent by the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Michigan.”
But the courts threw a major curveball at the MHSAA on its decision.
"The court's order in our case exceeded even our worst-case scenario preparations. The requested attorneys' fees award of $5,023,991.25 was reduced to $4,921,241.25 through an across-the-board reduction for "fees on fees" hours claimed and public relations hours claimed. This was reduced further by a 10 percent across-the-board reduction for "vagueness, excessiveness and duplicity in the hours billed," which is how the court arrived at $4,429,117.13 in attorneys' fees and $131,144.80 in costs, for a total award of $4,560,261.93,” Roberts said.
"The bigger surprise was the award of prejudgment interest paid on that total award, starting from the date the complaint was filed in 1998. This issue had not been briefed by the parties. This means that a case that was not about money damages has now become such a case. And it pushes the total well beyond the MHSAA's assets."
But Roberts said he was confident the MHSAA could weather the financial storm. There has been talk about raising ticket prices for MHSAA events, charging schools MHSAA membership fees and going to venues for state tournaments that don't cost the state as much money. Ford Field, for instance, the home of the Detroit Lions, is rented for two days for the football finals in November and Breslin Center at Michigan State University is used three days for the boys basketball state finals in March.