Behavior Policies for College Athletes & Potential Legal Challenges
Colleges and universities in the US have established varying codes of behavior for student athletes. At some institutions, these codes can be long and detailed, governing many aspects of behavior that have little or no connection to sports. Common issues covered by behavior policies include academic standing, dress codes and grooming, and drug and alcohol use, as well as how the athlete must behave in games and practices. Violations of these policies may lead to discipline, such as suspension or even dismissal from a team. College athletes sometimes challenge behavior policies in court, but they usually face an uphill battle.
Some of these challenges have alleged violations of the constitutional rights of due process and equal protection. In a due process challenge, the athlete asserts that they have a property right to participate in college sports, so they are entitled to due process protections before the school can remove that right. However, most courts have ruled that constitutional due process does not provide for a property right to participate in school sports. In an equal protection challenge, the athlete asserts that the behavior policy discriminates between groups of students. Courts usually have reviewed equal protection challenges under the lenient standard of rational basis review. This requires the challenger to show that a behavior policy is not rationally related to a legitimate school interest. A higher level of scrutiny may apply if a policy discriminates against students of certain races, national origins, religions, or other "suspect classifications."
Standard of Review Matters
Whether a court reviews an equal protection case under rational basis review or a higher level of scrutiny often determines the outcome of the case.
Free Speech Challenges
The First Amendment of the Constitution protects freedom of speech, expression, and association. A college athlete might bring a First Amendment challenge to behavior policies such as restrictions on dress or grooming, limits on the content of social media posts, or a ban on attendance at events where others are consuming alcohol. Courts often review these challenges more rigorously than equal protection or due process challenges. In some cases, they may apply enhanced scrutiny rather than rational basis review.
In general, a university can regulate student speech and expression if it disrupts education or if the speaker used a school forum, such as the university newspaper or radio station. However, a university may not be able to regulate speech and expression by students outside school property and without the use of school equipment. The First Amendment thus may offer one of the strongest paths to attacking a suspension for violating a code of conduct.
"Arbitrary and Capricious" Challenges
An athlete also might challenge a behavior policy under the "arbitrary and capricious" standard borrowed from administrative law. This involves showing that the policy under which a college athlete faced penalties was not rationally related to the effective operation of the athletics department or the university. In other words, the athlete must prove that violating this section of the code of conduct would not undermine institutional goals.
Courts usually show substantial deference to college codes of conduct. They tend to uphold any policies that are rationally related to legitimate educational goals, which could cover a broad range of rules. Thus, review of "arbitrary and capricious" challenges somewhat resembles review of equal protection challenges in this area.
Rights of Student Athletes With Disabilities
College athletes with disabilities are exempt from behavior policies only to the extent that a disability directly leads to a violation. Universities otherwise can apply codes of conduct to students with disabilities to the same extent as they would apply them to other students.