By JOSH NEWTON
A special district judge on Friday ruled the Oklahoma Secondary School Activities Association could not declare 12 Tahlequah-Sequoyah players ineligible before allowing them due process and investigating alleged violations.
OSSAA attorney Mark Grossman and Executive Director Ed Sheakley attended Friday’s show-cause hearing in Cherokee County District Court, along with four local attorneys representing the Sequoyah players: Tim Baker, brother of Cherokee Nation Principal Chief Bill John Baker; Deanna Wales; CN Attorney General Todd Hembree; and former Principal Chief Chad Smith, who had filed requests to intervene in the case.
Kirkley on Thursday granted a temporary injunction against an OSSAA ruling that eight Sequoyah players were ineligible for alleged policy infractions.
The hearing Friday morning began with Grossman asking the judge to dismiss Thursday’s temporary restraining order, which Kirkley denied.
Grossman then objected to Kirkley’s handling the hearing, and said a district judge should be deciding the matter.
Kirkley told Grossman that District Judge Darrell Shepherd and Associate District Judge Dennis Shook were tied up with other cases, and Associate District Judge Mark Dobbins was also unavailable.
“I went through a list, believe me,” Kirkley told Grossman.
Wales and Baker represent several Sequoyah players who were ruled ineligible by the OSSAA, and requested that Kirkley’s decision affect all players who had been ruled ineligible, regardless of whether they had officially filed for a temporary injunction.
The OSSAA last week said eight players on Sequoyah’s football team violated an association policy that dictates who is and is not allowed to pay for players’ summer camp tuition.
Four other Sequoyah players learned Thursday night they had also been ruled ineligible on similar allegations.
Wales and Baker both argued the students wouldn’t have known about the rule, and Wales contended she had a difficult time locating a specific policy on which the OSSAA had based its ruling. She said the OSSAA never put into writing its basis for the decision to rule players ineligible.
Wales indicated the policy she did find is actually an OSSAA board of directors’ policy, and not part of the OSSAA rules with which coaches and players might be familiar.
Hembree told the judge that Sequoyah officials have cooperated with the OSSAA since it began looking into the allegations last July, but said administrators and coaches involved in any possible infractions should pay the penalty, not the students.
“There are going to be penalties to be paid,” Hembree said. “There’s going to be blame to go around, ... [but] these young men didn’t do anything wrong.”
Attorneys argued the OSSAA had not provided due process to students, nor notified them or their families about their ineligibility.
Grossman said the OSSAA notified the school, rather than the students, of the ineligibilities.
“If students haven’t heard about it, it’s not the OSSAA’s fault,” Grossman said.
But attorneys for the students said OSSAA’s own policies require the association to tell school officials they should notify students of pending actions.
“How can you hold these kids out from playing sports without any due process?” Smith asked. “They are being held out their senior year from playing high school football without having any idea of what’s going on. Due process is required. These students are wholly in the dark about what’s going on. Require [the OSSAA] to follow their own rules ... before you punish these kids.”
Grossman admitted the OSSAA was “in the midst” of its due process and investigation, but said the association’s decision to rule the players ineligible also protects other teams and players who face off with Sequoyah.
“What I hear them saying is, ‘We’re in the midst of an investigation,’ but they’ve already made a determination,” Baker said. “None of these people knowingly did anything improper. We haven’t got to tell our story. We’ll never get these games back, judge. Let us finish out the season; let [the OSSAA] continue their investigation.”
Hembree said the OSSAA probe began after a Tahlequah Daily Press article last summer included comments from Sequoyah head coach Brent Scott about student athletes attending camps. That article was later sent to the OSSAA, which triggered the investigation, Hembree said. Grossman confirmed the timeline.
Hembree said officials discovered that Sequoyah possibly paid for certain camp tuition of players. He said the school received a call from the OSSAA and wanted to “be a good neighbor,” so officials have “cooperated fully.”
Attorneys for the students questioned the OSSAA for waiting until near the end of the season before ruling the players ineligible, several months after the probe started.
Grossman said he has heard “the coach” reportedly “held up the process” by not responding quickly to provide school officials with information requested by OSSAA.
He said the OSSAA didn’t receive a list of students who possibly violated association rules until less than two weeks ago, and said it’s “unfortunate” how the timing played out.
But Kirkley told Grossman and Sheakley the OSSAA “didn’t follow [their] own rules.”
“There was no due process pursuant to your rules,” said Kirkley. “That’s my point. Your investigation is still going on. I don’t think the executive director had the authority to do that.”
Friday’s decision did not affect Scott, who was also ruled ineligible by the OSSAA last week.
According to the Cherokee Nation, the temporary restraining order will remain in place until a Nov. 7 hearing in front of the OSSAA.