If U.S. Const. amend. XIV is not to be displaced, its ambit cannot be a simple line between States and people operating outside formally governmental organizations, and the deed of an ostensibly private organization or individual is to be treated sometimes as if a State had caused it to be performed. Thus, state action may be found if, though only if, there is such a close nexus between the State and the challenged action that seemingly private behavior may be fairly treated as that of the State itself.
Respondent Tennessee Secondary School Athletic Association ("Association") regulated interscholastic sports among Tennessee public and private high schools. Most of the state's public high schools were members, representing 84% of the Association's membership. School officials made up the voting membership of the Association's governing council and control board, which typically held meetings during regular school hours. The Association was largely funded by gate receipts. Association staff, although not state employees, could join the state retirement system. The Association set membership standards and student eligibility rules and had the power to penalize any member school that violated those rules. The State Board of Education ("Board") long acknowledged the Association's role in regulating interscholastic competition in public schools, and its members sat as nonvoting members of the Association's governing bodies. When the Association penalized petitioner Brentwood Academy for violating a recruiting rule, Brentwood filed a lawsuit in federal district court against the Association and its executive director under 42 U.S.C.S. § 1983, claiming that the rule's enforcement was state action that violated the First and Fourteenth Amendments. The district court granted Brentwood summary judgment, enjoining the rule's enforcement, but the United States Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit found no state action and reversed.
Was the Association a state actor subject to suit under 42 U.S.C.S. § 1983?
The Supreme Court of the United States held that the Association's activity constituted state action in view of the pervasive entwinement of state school officials in the structure of the ostensibly private Association, and there was no substantial reason to claim unfairness in applying constitutional standards to the Association. The Association consisted of schools, primarily public schools, represented by school officials acting within the scope of their official duties during official school hours. Also, the Board acknowledged the Association's authority and was represented in the Association's committees. Neither the unproven threat of expanded civil rights litigation nor the fact that the Association's member schools were undeniably state actors precluded the imposition of constitutional restraints.