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Teen alcoholic sues to get back on basketball team

Says he's covered by disabilities act

Rickey Higgins  


Alcoholism and the Disabilities act

CNN's Lisa Price talks with Higgins, attorneys, and experts.
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September 20, 1999
Web posted at: 11:04 a.m. EDT (1504 GMT)

CHICAGO (CNN) --- A star basketball player and high school senior, who has been diagnosed as an alcoholic, is suing his school district under the Americans with Disabilities Act after the school kicked him off the team for athletic code violations involving alcohol.

Rickey Higgins, 17, was suspended from the state finalists Blue Devils team, at suburban Chicago's Warren Township High School, for violating the school's athletic code after two alcohol-related offenses, including a May 23 drunken driving car accident that nearly killed him.

The school's code imposes a 30 percent cut in an athlete's participation in the season for the first offense involving alcohol, and bans participation for the entire season once a second offense is confirmed.

"He has been diagnosed as an alcoholic, that is a recognized disability under federal law and it is illegal for any public entity, which the school is, to discriminate," Steven Glink, lawyer for Higgins and his mother Elizabeth Stearns, told CNN.

"I am doing everything I can to stay sober, and I will continue to. I just feel like some way I've got to get a break somewhere," said Higgins, the star of state finals last spring.

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The school district's lawyer, Bennett Rodick, said this lawsuit, which is being filed in U.S. District Court and requests Higgins' reinstatement to the team and $100,000 in damages is the first time the Americans with Disabilities Act, has been used in this manner.

The ADA recognizes alcoholism as a disability, according to ADA experts at the Great Lakes Disability and Business Technical Assistance Center at the University of Illinois-Chicago.

"This is the first time we've had a claim exactly like this, where, in effect, the ADA" is being used as a "shield against otherwise illegal conduct," Rodick said. Lawyers on both sides agree the suit could set a precedent.

'The school has the right'

"The school has the right to expect that the athletes will represent the school and conform to reasonable standards of conduct. In this case, they want to get rid of (the school's policy) altogether," Rodick told the Lake Villa Review newspaper in suburban Chicago.

"Coverage under the law is not just based on 'Am I a person with a disability,'" said ADA expert Robin Jones, director of the Great Lakes ADA Center. "I also have to be a qualified person with a disability for the situation I am applying the law to."

Higgins has been sober since the May 23 accident, is getting counseling, attends Alcoholics Anonymous meetings and gives speeches to groups. He has been in school for two weeks since the lawsuit was filed.

"Rickey is always happiest in basketball season and he would be lost without this daily activity," said Higgins' mother, Stearns.

Since then, another star basketball player with the Blue Devils transferred from the school following his arrest on charges of assault and reckless driving.

Correspondent Lisa Price contributed to this report.

When alcohol becomes a problem
September 1, 1999
Substance abuse recovery programs: Which one is right for you?
May 19, 1999

Warren Township High School
Americans with Disabilities Act
Alcoholics Anonymous
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