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Judge dismisses lawsuit that sought to overturn decision to postpone high school sports

A high school football game on Long Island

A high school football game on Long Island on Oct. 12, 2019. Credit: Steven Ryan

A Nassau County Supreme Court judge on Monday dismissed a lawsuit brought by Massapequa’s school district against Section VIII, the governing body for high school sports in Nassau County, that sought to overturn the decision not to play high school sports in the fall.

Justice Jack L. Libert ruled that Section VIII "acted within the lawful scope of its authority" when it decided not to play high school sports until 2021 because of the COVID-19 pandemic. Its plan is to play compressed versions of all three sports seasons between January and June. The approximate time for holding the fall season would be in March and April.

"We looked out for the health of our kids," Section VIII executive director Pat Pizzarelli said. "We all want our kids out there competing, but it has to be done safely."

Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo issued guidance on Aug. 24 that permitted lower-risk sports — he named soccer, field hockey, tennis, swimming and cross country — to begin practice and play on Sept. 21.

On Aug. 26, the Section VIII Superintendents’ Board unanimously voted to delay the start of fall sports and announced that it was doing so "out of an abundance of caution for the health and safety of our students." Massapequa’s school district filed court papers on Sept 9. On Sept. 17, the Section VIII Athletic Council approved a motion to delay the fall season by a 12-2 vote with two abstentions.

Libert found that Massapequa’s petition had merit in that the decision had to be made by the Athletic Council and that Massapequa skipped over the appeals process before bringing the suit and "failed to exhaust its administrative remedies."

It concluded that even if Massapequa had followed procedure, that "the decision to delay the start of the season was supported by substantial evidence and was not "arbitrary and capricious," as Massapequa had said.

"I wish it hadn’t come to this — doing this in court," Pizzarelli said. "We’re still learning things about this disease. Numbers are going up in a lot of places. Protecting the health of the kids has to be the priority."

One other bid to overturn the Section VIII decision remains to be decided. The Island Trees school district filed an appeal of the decision with the New York State Public High School Athletic Association, which held an appeals hearing for both sides last Friday. A ruling on the appeal is expected before the end of the week.

However, protocols require that Island Trees seek a remedy with the Athletic Council before bringing it to the NYSPHSAA. The failure "to exhaust its administrative remedies," as Libert’s decision described, also could end up derailing Island Trees’ appeal.

The voting members of the NYSPHSAA appeals panel are former director Paul Herrica, an executive director from another section and an appeals coordinator from another section.

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