A Chicago federal judge has benched litigation brought by a disabled suburban student athlete against the Illinois High School Association, who wanted lower qualifying standards, saying the IHSA has to guarantee the athlete's opportunity to compete, but not to give him an unfair edge over the non-disabled.
The dismissal ruling was issued by U.S. District Judge John Tharp Jr. favoring the IHSA over Keith Holzmueller, with the case terminated at a hearing July 13.
In February 2016, Holzmueller filed for an injunction on behalf of his then 15-year-old son, identified as A.H. in court documents, against the IHSA. Holzmueller alleged the association has violated the U.S. Rehabilitation Act, the U.S. Americans with Disabilities Act and the equal protection clauses of the U.S. and Illinois constitutions. The Bloomington-headquartered IHSA organizes and administers state athletic competitions for almost all high schools in Illinois.
A.H. is a student at Evanston High School who has physical disabilities, caused by cerebral palsy suffered at birth, according to the lawsuit. A.H. takes part in his school’s local track and cross-country events, and was considered one of the top disabled high school runners in Illinois, the suit said. However, A.H. cannot participate with his team in state meets, because he cannot attain the same qualifying time standards required of non-disabled contestants.
A. H. alleged the IHSA discriminates against him and other similarly handicapped athletes. He asked IHSA to set different qualifying times for runners such as himself. IHSA declined to do so, arguing in its motion to dismiss that, “A.H. has the same opportunity to compete . . . as his nondisabled peers" and IHSA “does not believe that his disability entitles him to accommodations which would better assure his chances for victory.”
Judge Tharp agreed with the view of IHSA, finding no indication the IHSA is guilty of discrimination.
"IHSA’s standards prevent not only para-ambulatory racers like A.H. from competing
at the state finals, but 90% of the state’s non-disabled high school runners as well," Tharp observed.
Tharp went on in this vein to note able-bodied athletes are excluded from finals with "comparable ruthlessness" as are the disabled and the "odds are overwhelming that they (the disabled) would have failed to qualify even had they not been disabled.”
If the IHSA lowered the qualifying standards as requested by Holzmueller, such a change would "fundamentally alter the character" of IHSA programs and give an unfair advantage to physically challenged athletes, the judge said.
In finishing his thoughts, Tharp made a few observations about life in general and A.H. in particular.
"While all acknowledge that A.H. has an intense work ethic and has been dogged in the pursuit of his goals, it is an unfortunate fact of athletic life (and life in general, for that matter) that hard work is no guarantee of competitive success; we all have varying degrees of athletic ability and few will rise to elite status even with a work ethic second to none.
"The anti-discrimination statutes require equality of opportunity and access, not of results. A.H.’s participation in the state finals won’t diminish anyone else’s success, or highlight anyone else’s failure. It will simply give us all another reason to cheer."
Holzmueller has been represented by the Chicago firm of Jenner & Block.
The IHSA has been defended by the Chicago, Peoria and Champaign offices of the Chicago-based firm of Heyl, Royster, Voelker & Allen.