Andrew Wimer
Andrew Wimer · May 13, 2024

ARLINGTON, Va.—Today, the Institute for Justice (IJ) sent a letter to the Utah High School Activities Association (UHSAA) calling on it to abandon a proposed amendment to its bylaws that would bar varsity high school teams with international students from post-season play. The proposed amendment, the letter explains, would violate the 14th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.

The UHSAA is the governing entity for most high school athletics in Utah. Its proposed amendment would prohibit varsity teams that have even a single player who is in the United States on an F-1 student visa from participating in post-season competition. The amendment would force schools into an unpalatable (and unconstitutional) choice between two bans: a ban on international (F-1 visa) student participation in varsity athletics or a ban on the school’s participation in post-season varsity competition.

“As a state actor, the UHSAA is obligated to respect the constitutional rights of students, parents, and schools,” noted IJ Senior Attorney Michael Bindas, who authored the letter to the UHSAA. “Instead, the proposed amendment would violate those rights. It would also deny international and domestic students alike of the significant educational benefits that participation in interscholastic athletics offers.”

For a century, beginning with the seminal cases Meyer v. Nebraska (1923) and Pierce v. Society of Sisters (1925), the U.S. Supreme Court has recognized and protected the right of parents to direct the education of their children. The Court has also recognized and protected the liberty of parents to contract with private schools to educate their children and of private schools to provide their services to families who desire them.

Many parents choose schools for their children in part because of the schools’ athletic programs. As the UHSAA’s own handbook recognizes, student activities, including “sports teams,” are “supportive [of] the instructional program” and “frequently an extension of the academic program.” In fact, the UHSAA’s mission statement explains that interscholastic athletics “are a significant educational force in the development of skills needed to become a contributing member of society,” and the UHSAA emphasizes the fact that “[t]hose involved in student activities generally achieve better grades, attendance, citizenship and personal discipline than do nonparticipants.”  

The proposed amendment, however, would violate the rights of parents who choose a school for their children, in part, because of these very benefits. It would also violate the rights of private schools to provide athletic programs to families as part of the overall academic experience.

The amendment, moreover, would impose significant economic harm on private schools. Barring international students from varsity athletics would almost certainly lead to withdrawals of student-athletes and declines in future enrollment. And similar declines would result if a school instead opted for the bar on post-season play. After all, student-athletes, international and domestic alike, will be unwilling to attend a school where there is no reward for their hard work and the success they achieve during the regular season. Students with prospects of playing at the collegiate level will not be willing to forgo the significant recruiting exposure that comes along with post-season tournament play.

Another unconstitutional aspect of the proposed amendment is that it targets a particular class of students based on their immigration status. The rule applies only to international students in the United States on an F-1 student visa; it does not apply to other nonimmigrant visa holders, such as exchange students, nor does it apply to undocumented students. By contrast, the protection of the 14th Amendment’s Equal Protection Clause “applies to all aliens,” as the Supreme Court has held.

“The UHSAA should allow all students to participate fully in the academic and extracurricular life of their schools, not punish some because of their immigration status,” Bindas added.

IJ is the nation’s leading law firm defending the right of parents to direct the education of their children, as well as the economic liberty of entrepreneurs, including education entrepreneurs.