Cleveland Heights High School boys’ basketball team is back in the Ohio High School Athletic Association’s postseason tournament.
“Your headline today is: Heights is back in the tournament,” said attorney Ken Myers, who was retained by several parents of players. “And the Heights alum, which is me, is thrilled.”
Myers, who graduated from the high school in 1976, often represents children and parents in school settings.
“Against school districts or when kids have been charged with crimes or kids with disabilities have problems with schools implementing their (individualized education programs),” Myers said. “So I do a lot of school-related issues.”
He said fellow alumni and friend Mark Sack, who teaches at the school, informed him of the situation.
Noting Sack played on the team as a student and remains involved as a teacher, Myers said, “He contacted me after the appeal at OHSAA had been rejected and just said, ‘The parents are thinking of trying to see what else they can do, are you interested in exploring it?’”
Following conversations with parents, Athletic Director Joe D’Amato and the school district’s attorney, Myers said, “It came together pretty fast, as it had to, because the time limit was so severe.”
After participating in the Tarkanian Classic, a prep basketball tournament in Las Vegas, Nev., named for former Euclid resident Jerry Tarkanian, OHSAA determined the team’s trip violated bylaw 9-2-1 against players missing school days to compete in out-of-state tournaments in noncontiguous states.
Noting the tournament began on Dec. 19 during Heights’ exam week before winter break, Myers said, “The OHSAA people had basically approved the tournament in writing to the tournament sponsors in Las Vegas.”
“Then they sent an email to Heights saying, ‘Watch out for this bylaw,’ and then the woman from OHSAA called Heights to talk about this bylaw or make sure he got the email,” Myers said.
After that conversation, D’Amato said he believed the team was cleared to go.
“They went, and then literally on the eve of them picking the pairings or the brackets for the state tournament, they find out they’ve been bounced out of the tournament because the other other OHSAA people read this bylaw to mean something different,” Myers said.
On Feb. 21, Judge John J. Russo granted a temporary restraining order, instructing Division I Euclid District tournament officials to draft a second bracket that includes the team prior to the Feb. 24 hearing in Cuyahoga County Common Pleas Court.
“We spent all day in court today (Feb. 24) hearing witnesses, both from the Heights side and from OHSAA, on what happened and what’s the interpretation of the bylaw,” Myers said. “At the end of that process, the judge issued a ruling basically saying, ‘The bylaw is very confusing and I’m not going to let them enforce it against Heights.’”
In a statement from the OHSAA’s executive director’s office, the organization said it was extremely disappointed in the court’s decision and would continue to examine the available options regarding the court's decision.
“However, while appealing this decision to the Court of Appeals is certainly an option, our office and boards believe that it is in the best interests of the participating schools, teams and student-athletes that the boys basketball tournament proceed with the seeding, bracketing and scheduling that was conducted as of Sunday afternoon, February 23, 2020,” the statement said. “Further disruptions in this tournament will not benefit any of the participants, nor will an emergency appeal of this adverse decision serve the interests of the OHSAA. The boys tournament begins tonight (Feb. 26) and on behalf of our staff, our board of directors and our district athletic board members, we wish the best for all of the participating schools, teams and athletes.”
After finishing the regular season with a 17-5 record and winning a share of the Lake Erie League championship, Heights will host a 7 p.m. game Feb. 29 against Madison High School, who won 62-60 against Painesville Township’s Riverside High School on Feb. 26.
Myers, a Solon resident and a member of Temple Emanu El in Orange, noted the OHSAA is sued “rather frequently,” he said most cases regard individual eligibility claims.
“If a particular student-athlete is deemed to be an ineligible because they moved or they’re not living with their parents, (alternatively), there’ve been a couple of claims about how the organization deals with athletes with disabilities,” Myers said. “So I found a fairly large number of cases in which they’d been sued and it’s infrequent that they lose, but it’s not unheard of.”
Reflecting on the case, Myers said one of Russo’s comments particularly stood out to him. Recalling the OHSAA’s attorney described the organization as existing for 113 years and having roughly 800 member high schools with more than 350,000 high school student athletes, Myers said the OHSAA “made this big case” for the large number of things the organization regulates.
“And he said, for all those years, we’ve been the ones that call the balls and strikes and make the tough calls interpreting the rules. It was his sort of pitch to say, ‘Judge, leave us alone, let us do our job,’” Myers recounted. “And the judge, in his decision, said something to the effect of, ‘I appreciate that the OHSAA has, for all these years, called balls and strikes and been the umpire, but now we have something called instant replay, and there’s somebody up in the booth that can quickly review the agency’s decisions and decide whether they’ve made a mistake, and I’m the replay official.’”
Myers said comments suggested team parents were teaching the players a lesson that “they don’t have to follow the rules and that mommy and daddy will bail them out.”
Noting he often represents parents and their children in similar situations “where they’re bucking a school district or a city government or somebody in authority,” Myers said he sometimes worries about that.
“I would never sue a school district because a kid got a ‘B’ instead of an ‘A,’” Myers said. “But what I always tell the parents and the kids that I represent is: there’s also a time when you want the lesson to be stand up and fight for what’s right. If you feel like you’ve been wronged and it’s something that’s going to have a serious effect on you, then you want to teach the kid that you need to fight against that authority in a legal civil way.”
In this case, Myers said something happened that was wrong.
“The interpretation of this bylaw was wrong and the penalty was wrong and the kids were going to suffer materially and the parents banded together to fight that,” Myers said. “And that’s what we did, and at the end of the day, the judge said we were right and the OHSAA was wrong. I think there’s a valuable lesson in that.”