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Right to play?

Published 10:05am Friday, August 23, 2013

Mother files suit against youth football league for rejecting son’s application


SOUTH POINT — A South Point mother has filed a lawsuit against the South Point Youth Football League, claiming the league violated her son’s civil and constitutional rights by not allowing him to take the field.

The non-profit organization’s board of directors denied all allegations and says its focus is on providing a safe and positive environment.

The complaint, filed Aug. 2 in Lawrence County Common Pleas Court, states that Amber Runyon registered her 7-year-old son Wesley to participate in the football league this fall after he participated in a football camp in June.

Two weeks later, Runyon received a letter from the board of directors stating it could not accept the boy’s application due to a conflict of interest with Runyon stemming from alleged incidents during the 2012 season, the complaint said.

The letter from the board, dated July 5, states, “The conflict of interest results from your (Amber Runyon’s) gross display of inappropriate language, harassment to other players, threats of bodily harm to coaches and general poor sportsmanship.”

Jason Smith, an Ironton attorney representing Runyon, said the board tried to ban the woman from the field last season.

“Last year there were some issues at the ball field where they were trying to bar her from the practice field and the games, claiming that she was threatening other parents and intimidating other parents and coaches and referees and whatnot,” Smith said. “A number of times they called the sheriff and had her removed. As it turns out, the sheriff told the league, ‘We can’t remove her. This is public property.’”

The football league games and practices are held on property owned by the South Point Board of Education.

Runyon has denied the allegations that she threatened anyone or acted inappropriately.

Christen Finley, attorney for the league’s board of directors, said Tuesday she would answer questions via email. She was asked what was the board’s position on the Runyon family’s claims and if a countersuit would be filed.

“The SPYFL strives to be an inclusive private, non-profit organization dedicated to providing high-quality recreational opportunities for the young children of our area,” Finley said in her email response. “It is of the utmost importance to SPYFL that it provide a fun, positive environment for those involved in the program. To accomplish this goal, SPYFL places great emphasis on the values of sportsmanship and respect for others. For obvious reasons, bullying, name calling, including racial slurs, threats of physical violence and foul language, are prohibited and directly conflict with the mission of SPYFL.

“SPYFL maintains that its actions regarding the plaintiffs are consistent with its mission and objective in providing a positive environment for players, parents and coaches. SPYFL strongly denies violating any laws or rights of the plaintiffs. SPYFL will not discuss its litigation strategy but confirms that it will vigorously defend the allegations asserted by plaintiffs.”

Derick Fisher, attorney representing the league itself, said it was his policy not to comment on pending litigation.

The complaint against the football league alleges Runyon was given no opportunity to appear at any meeting of the board to answer any type of complaint the board had against her, nor was a compromise offered that would have allowed Wesley to participate while restricting Runyon’s access to games and practices.

Smith said he filed for declaratory judgment and injunctive relief on the Runyons’ behalf, which would force the board to allow Wesley to play.

“I feel like they are violating this child’s right to participate and because the league uses school property,” Smith said.

At a hearing last week, Magistrate D.L. McWhorter ordered that the boy be allowed to start practicing with the team until a final ruling was made, but that Runyon is not allowed to be at the practices or at the games. He also ordered Runyon to pay a $2,500 bond to enforce the temporary injunction, which was paid Tuesday.

Also during the hearing, Smith said Nancy Clary, SPYFL board president, alleged Wesley has used racial slurs during practice, also a claim Runyon denied.

“The magistrate said he was refusing to take into consideration any of the racial slur allegations because that was not part of the board’s reason they were not allowing him to play,” Smith said.

There will be another hearing on the case on Sept. 30 in which McWhorter is expected to make a ruling on the merits of the case, Smith said.

“Her (Runyon’s) only goal is getting (Wesley) to be able to play right there where he has grown up with all of his friends that he has been playing with and not have to remove him from his own district,” Smith said.

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