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Lawsuit seeks reversal of Michigan’s ban on high school contact sports

LANSING — A high school sports advocacy group, hockey league and parents of athletes sued Michigan’s health director on Tuesday, seeking a reversal of a 2 1/2-month state ban on contact sports that was issued to curb the spread of the coronavirus.

Let Them Play Michigan, a group of student-athletes, parents, coaches and school administrators who rallied at the Capitol over the weekend, is among the plaintiffs that filed suit in the state Court of Claims. The complaint contends that the pandemic order, which was recently extended through Feb. 21, “arbitrarily and irrationally singles out and deprives” athletes of their constitutional rights and freedoms. Competition could resume safely with precautions, according to the lawsuit.

“Unfortunately, there is no other place for citizens to appeal a decision that restricts the parents’ and the student-athletes’ ability to pursue a key component of their public education,” said lawyer Peter Ruddell. “The ban on athletic practice and competitions has restricted the ability of these and many other student-athletes from achieving their career pathway — competing, practicing and potentially gaining a college scholarship.”

The order prohibits contact sports unless all participants, teams and venues comply with an enhanced COVID-19 testing regimen, as conducted by pro and college leagues, or a pilot testing program, which enabled the recent completion of fall high school tournaments that had been suspended. Winter high school sports — basketball, hockey, wrestling and competitive cheer — along with youth leagues are effectively restricted to non-contact activities only.

State Health and Human Services Director Elizabeth Hertel, whom Democratic Gov. Gretchen Whitmer appointed to lead the agency 11 days ago, was sued in her official capacity. Spokeswoman Lynn Sutfin said the department and governor acted decisively in November as a surge in cases threatened to overwhelm hospitals.

“As the numbers in Michigan continue to decline, and as the governor has already indicated, the administration is reviewing current mitigation measures, including those around contact sports,” Sutfin said. “As to the particular lawsuit, the administration does not generally comment on litigation and does not make decisions based on lawsuits, but on data and the ongoing advice of public health experts.”

Other plaintiffs in the lawsuit include the Michigan Amateur Youth Hockey League and the parents of five high school athletes.

The suit alleges violations of equal protection, due process and free assembly rights. It also says the athletes are being denied an adequate education and are being treated differently to older collegiate and professional athletes, in violation of state civil rights law. The state also failed to comply with requirements for publishing and taking public comment on rules, according to the complaint.

Ruddell said he has had discussions with the Whitmer administration but its “sense of urgency” has not matched the athletes’.

“The opportunity for the student-athletes to compete is narrow,” he said.

The Michigan High School Athletic Association says winter contact sports are underway in 38 states, including three border states since Dec. 1 — Ohio, Indiana and Wisconsin. Thousands of Michigan kids are visiting the states for weekend tournaments, according to the group.

“We’ve opened restaurants. We’ve opened bars. We’ve opened casinos. We’ve opened all sorts of indoor activities that are allowed. Why not high school sports? Ruddell said.

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