Advocates for high school athletes file suit over shutdown; state defends decision

David Goricki
The Detroit News

A group of advocates for high school athletes shut down by the state's winter-sports pause has filed a lawsuit against Michigan's director of Department of Health and Human Services, seeking an injunction while alleging the decision to delay several sports' seasons violates state and federal constitutions.

The lawsuit was filed Tuesday in the Michigan Court of Claims against DHHS director Elizabeth Hertel, by lawyers representing several advocacy groups and individuals, among them Let Them Play Michigan and the Michigan Amateur Youth Hockey League. The Michigan High School Athletic Association is not part of the lawsuit, nor has it been asked to join.

Referee Matt Fields keeps a close eye on a match at the 2020 MHSAA Individual Wrestling Tournament at Ford Field in Detroit.

The state has delayed the start of several contact-sports seasons, including basketball, hockey, wrestling and competitive cheer, until Feb. 21. Practices for those sports were supposed to start Thursday, before the state issued another delay last month. The delay has come as volleyball and football were allowed to complete their state championships last month.

“Unfortunately, this morning we had to take action that we would have preferred not to take,” lawyer Peter Ruddell of the Honigman Business Law Firm said Tuesday morning in a Zoom conference call with media. “There is no other place for citizens to appeal a decision that restricts the parents and student-athletes ability to pursue a key component of their public education.

“The ban on athletic practice and competition has restricted the ability of these and many other student athletes for achieving their career pathway, competing and practicing and potentially gaining college scholarships."

More: UM's Juwan Howard, Oakland's Greg Kampe join effort to restart high school basketball

Among the other claims made by the plaintiffs: That scientific data supports a resumption of youth sports, with a minimal positive rate for COVID-19; that surrounding states, including Ohio, Indiana and Wisconsin, have resumed sports while seeing a decrease in COVID-19 cases; and that the shutdown disproportionately affects families with less financial means, as those with more are able to travel to surrounding states to participate in sports.

Specifically, plaintiffs cite violations of the United States constitution's Equal Protection, Procedural and Substantive Due Process and Right to Free Assembly acts, and the state constitution's Right to Free Education amendment, the Elliot-Larsen Civil Rights Act and the Administrative Procedures Act.

Parents for several star Michigan athletes, including prized basketball recruit Brady Titus and hockey players Zachary Ingalls and Carter Dethloff, are part of the lawsuit.

The state defended its actions Tuesday in a statement to The News from a MDDHS spokesperson. 

"The Michigan Department of Health and Human Services and Governor (Gretchen) Whitmer took decisive action during the recent surge of COVID-19 cases that threatened to overrun hospitals," the spokesperson said. "According to recent data from the University of Michigan School of Public Health, those actions likely prevented over 100,000 new cases and 1,960 or more deaths.  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.

"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."

Staff writer Tony Paul contributed.