ABERDEEN – A federal judge Friday declined to halt the ban of some teenage soccer players from their high school teams.
U.S. District Judge Sharion Aycock, after a three-hour hearing Thursday and a conference call Friday, decided not to issue a preliminary injunction on enforcement of what’s called “The 50% Rule” by the Mississippi High School Activities Association Inc.
Aycock also dismissed the lawsuit filed against MHSAA by 16 teen soccer players and their parents from Tupelo and Starkville.
MHSAA, a Jackson-based nonprofit, governs athletic and academic competitions for state high schools.
The MHSAA rule, put on hold the past seven years, limits high school play by independent or club players during the “sports season” to just half the number a team can field – in the case of soccer, that’s five players.
Under the rule, others who play on club teams cannot be part of their high school team.
MHSAA claims the rule is aimed at preventing “specialization” in a sport for domination by a particular school.
High school soccer season runs from Monday through Feb. 7, 2014, and club play occurs August through May.
“Obviously, we are disappointed,” said plaintiff’s attorney Mark Halbert of Tupelo.
“This may be the end of our efforts, but it may not be the end of the issue,” he noted.
The rule was activated, MHSAA says, to make soccer play the same as it has for other sports, like football, basketball or baseball.
But critics say soccer is different and the other sports do not have club play during their regular seasons.
Tupelo High School junior Ben Alford’s mother, Deanna, said Friday she doesn’t see MHSAA willing to work with the players and parents to find a solution between high school and club participation.
“It’s not just about our kids – it’s all the Mississippi kids who want to play at these levels,” she said, adding that her son and some others will be able to play at THS because their limited club play did not hurt their eligibility so far this school year.
Dr. Andrew Mackin, Starkville’s club team coach, was not immediately available to say what his players will do, although in testimony Thursday, he said they are heavily committed to elite club tournament play next spring.
In her 11-page ruling, Aycock said that despite the plaintiffs’ legal standing, they could not pass the legal hurdle for their likelihood of success with their complaint.
“Although better alternatives may exist,” Aycock wrote, “the MHSAA is not required to choose the least restrictive method of achieving its desired ends.”
Thursday, Halbert insisted to Aycock that the issue was not about eligibility but a constitutional one of equal protection, that with the rule, MHSAA allows some to play and others cannot.
Don Hinton, MHSAA executive director, was not available to comment on the ruling.