Lawsuit Claims Pennsylvania Denies Disabled Athletes Chance to Compete in State Track and Field Championships [UPDATE]
by Erin Shaak
Last Updated on December 20, 2021
Brown et al. v. Pennsylvania Interscholastic Athletic Association Inc.
Filed: August 24, 2021 ◆§ 2:21-cv-01119
A lawsuit claims wheelchair and other para-ambulatory athletes have been unlawfully excluded from participation in Pennsylvania’s high school track and field championships.
December 20, 2021 – Private Settlement Reached
The case detailed on this page has been closed after the parties appeared to reach a private settlement.
A December 13 order noted that the lawsuit was not dismissed and that if further proceedings were necessary, either party could “initiate the appropriate course of action” as if the case had not been closed.
No further details about the settlement were provided in court documents.
A proposed class action claims Pennsylvania Interscholastic Athletic Association Inc. (PIAA) has unlawfully discriminated against wheelchair and other para-ambulatory athletes by excluding them from participation in the state’s high school track and field championships.
The 16-page case claims that although PIAA requires its member schools to accommodate athletes with permanent physical disabilities, i.e., para athletes, during the regular track and field season, “no process exists” for the individuals to qualify for and compete in the defendant’s end-of-season championships.
“That’s because, according to PIAA, ‘[t]rack and field events administered by PIAA are intended for participation by able-bodied athletes[,]’ only,” the complaint alleges, quoting the defendant’s policies and procedures document for the 2020-2021 school year.
According to the suit, although PIAA’s equal opportunity statement expresses that the organization “believes that all boys and girls should have equal opportunity to participate in all levels of interscholastic athletics regardless of race, color, sex, creed, religion or ethnic background,” it makes no mention of “disability.”
The lawsuit, alleging violations of the Americans with Disabilities Act and the Rehabilitation Act, looks to require the defendant to update its policy to ensure that para athletes have the same opportunity as their classmates to compete in PIAA’s high school track and field championships starting in the 2022 season.
The lawsuit explains that student athletes across Pennsylvania can qualify for the PIAA Track and Field Championships (or the “states”) by placing eighth or better in their district championship finals as long as their time, height or distance at the event meets PIAA’s qualifying standards. Para athletes, however, are denied the opportunity to participate in the state championships given PIAA maintains no qualifying standards for them, according to the suit.
The case alleges that PIAA, by failing to maintain a process through which para athletes can qualify for and compete in the Pennsylvania state championships for track and field, has denied those athletes the opportunity to “share in their teammates’ goal” of qualifying for the event, earn points for their team, compete against other para athletes across Pennsylvania, represent their schools on a statewide level, gain exposure to college scouts and programs, earn athletic scholarships and “gain the lifelong memories and other long-term benefits of participating in interscholastic sports.”
The lawsuit points out that at least 27 other state high school associations maintain a wheelchair division for track and field and a dozen of those states maintain a separate division for para-ambulatory athletes who do not use a wheelchair. According to the suit, one of the plaintiffs, had he lived in Ohio instead of Pennsylvania, would have qualified for and competed in that state’s track and field championship in 2021 for both the 100-meter dash and the shot put. The other plaintiff, the case says, could have participated in the ambulatory para athletes divisions in shot put and discus at California’s 2019 state championships had he lived in that state.
“Unlike students in Ohio, California, and at least a dozen other states across the country, [the plaintiffs] will never have the chance to qualify for and, upon qualification, compete alongside their teammates at the PIAA Track and Field Championships unless PIAA modifies its current able-only rules, policies, and procedures before the 2022 season,” the lawsuit attests.
The full complaint can be read below.
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