The rigidly ideological atmosphere of many colleges and universities is a frequent topic of discussion these days.
But at least there’s still college sports, right?
Unfortunately, even high profile athletes who generate millions of dollars for their schools are not immune from being treated like helpless children (or worse) by the institutions that profit from their enrollment.
Matthew Stevens, a sports reporter for the Montgomery Advertiser, broke the news today that the publication asked 12 different SEC head coaches during a media call on Wednesday “if they had a policy regarding restrictions on their players legally owning a handgun.”
Stevens’s reported: “Four head coaches – Texas A&M’s Kevin Sumlin, Mississippi State’s Dan Mullen, Vanderbilt’s Derek Mason and Kentucky’s Mark Stoops – stated that they have team policies restricting their players from having handguns or ‘weapons’ as part of being a member of the football program.”
Meanwhile, the University of Missouri denied earlier reports that head football coach Barry Odom banned his players from legally owning handguns for the duration of their membership in the program.
A spokesperson for the University clarified, “Our program’s policy does not prohibit players from legally owning guns.” Rather, it states “that if a player has a legal issue, and an illegal gun is involved as part of that legal issue, then the player is removed from the program.”
The other eight head coaches present on the call referred to their institutions’ campus-wide restrictions on guns, which they expected their players to obey. Some indicated that they would consider adding restrictions of their own, however.
Coaches at public institutions who impose broad bans on otherwise legal firearm possession as a condition of participation in their sports clearly invite bad publicity for their programs and potentially limit their recruiting pool.
But under the doctrine of unconstitutional conditions, they may be inviting lawsuits as a well. This doctrine holds that a government actor cannot force someone to surrender a constitutional right as a condition of receiving some benefit from the government.
As stated in the 1972 U.S. Supreme Court case Perry v. Sindermann: “[T]his Court has made clear that even though a person has no ‘right’ to a valuable governmental benefit and even though the government may deny him the benefit for any number of reasons, there are some reasons upon which the government may not rely. It may not deny a benefit to a person on a basis that infringes his constitutionally protected interests ….”
We have yet to hear of institutions of higher learning forcing students to surrender other civil rights as a condition of participating in official college organizations. That perhaps speaks especially poorly of how these institutions view their own student athletes. Certainly any institution that, for example, forced a teaching fellow to surrender the right to vote or compelled a band member to refrain from religious worship could expect serious consequences to follow.
The right to possess firearms, including handguns, is no less of a constitutional right. And public university coaches who deny players that right are as culpable as any other state agent who would infringe a fundamental liberty.