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High School Hoops Star Sues To Play

September 10, 1999

CHICAGO (AP) _ Rickey Higgins’ senior season was his chance to catch the eye of college basketball recruiters. But it was over before it even started.

As a junior last year, he helped lead Warren Township High School to a surprising second-place finish in the state basketball tournament. After that, his troubles began, and within three months, the 17-year-old was arrested twice on alcohol-related offenses.

He was subsequently declared ineligible for the upcoming basketball season.

Now Higgins is suing his suburban high school. In a federal lawsuit, Higgins says he is recovering alcoholic and argues that the school’s disciplinary action amounts to discrimination under the Americans with Disabilities Act.

``I think I deserve a second chance,″ Higgins said Thursday. ``Most people who are alcoholics think no one will help them, and I’m getting that feeling.″

Higgins is seeking his reinstatement to the team and $100,000 in compensatory damages.

Legal experts say Higgins may have a tough time proving his case under the ADA, although they acknowledge courts continue to decipher it almost a decade after it was passed.

Chai Feldblum, a Georgetown University law professor who helped write the ADA, said the law can’t be applied retroactively.

``An employer or school has no obligation to accommodate an alcoholic if they didn’t know he was an alcoholic,″ she said. ``You don’t get second chances under the ADA.″

Bennett Rodick, the attorney for Warren Township High School, said the lawsuit is ``clearly an attempt to broaden the ADA.″

``The ADA cannot be used as a shield against the consequences of illegal conduct,″ he said. ``I think the school has a right to expect of its athletes or anyone involved in extracurricular activities that they don’t engage in illegal conduct.″

Higgins, a 5-foot-11 guard, missed much of last season with a back injury.

He returned to lead the team in scoring in its state semifinal victory and was named second team all-tournament. The second-place finish in March was the best ever for Warren Township High, about 30 miles north of Chicago.

Higgins was cited in April when he was the passenger in a car that contained open alcohol. In May, he was convicted of driving under the influence of alcohol after he ran into a tree.

In June, school officials ruled that Higgins violated the school’s athletic code, which says any student-athlete involved in two alcohol-related incidents loses a year of eligibility.

Higgins’ alcoholism was diagnosed by the teen’s personal physician and also a psychologist and social worker he has been working with, said his attorney, Steven Glink.

``This kid could not control his use of alcohol,″ Glink said. ``Because he could not control it it’s a disability and he should not be punished for it.″

Higgins’ father and grandfather also are alcoholics, Glink said.

Higgins said he has received recruiting letters from colleges and hoped to make an impression on some bigger schools this season. He said his family was disappointed with the district’s decision because he reported the incidents to the school and then took steps to correct his problem.

``It’s always been a dream of mine to play college ball,″ he said. ``This will definitely hurt that. I just want to get out there and play.″

Curt Decker, executive director of the National Association of Protection and Advocacy Systems, a group that provides legal advocacy services to people with disabilities, said the 1990 law covers recovering alcoholics and drug abusers but not current users.

Although he had not seen the lawsuit, Decker said it sounds like the school was reacting to specific incidents and not the fact Higgins may be an alcoholic.

``I don’t think he can claim he was discriminated against based on those incidents,″ Decker said. ``My guess is we would never touch a case like this.″

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