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Yempabou Palo v. Iowa Board of Regents: Is Athletic Participation a Right or a Privilege?

Yempabou Palo (“Palo”) was a member of the Iowa State University (“ISU”) men’s basketball team. On September 18, 2012, he was formally charged by the Story County, Iowa Attorney with sexual abuse in the second degree as a result of an alleged incident that occurred in May 2012. Subsequently, in January 2013, the Story County, Iowa Attorney dropped the charges against Palo. Palo was suspended from participation on the ISU men’s basketball team while the charges were pending, but was reinstated with 17 games remaining in the 2012-13 season following the dismissal of the charges.

In September 2012, the Office of Judicial Affairs of ISU charged Palo with violation of the University’s Code of Conduct relating to the above-referenced alleged sexual misconduct. A proceeding was held before an Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”) from the Iowa Department of Inspections and Appeals and the judge held that the accusations were “not founded.” The matter was then appealed to the President of ISU, Dr. Steven Leath. President Leath overturned the ALJ’s decision and concluded that the Student Code of Conduct had been violated by Palo. Accordingly, Palo was precluded from participation on the ISU men’s basketball team, thus Palo appealed the ruling to the Iowa Board of Regents. The Iowa Board of Regents affirmed President Leath’s decision. Palo, then, filed suit in the District Court of Story County, Iowa seeking a stay of his suspension from the ISU men’s basketball team until the matter can be fully determined on the merits.

District Court Judge Thomas Bice granted Palo’s request by stating “the provision…disallowing Palo from participating as a member of the ISU basketball team is hereby STAYED on a temporary basis only.” In his review of the case, Judge Bice noted that Palo was a student in “good standing” at ISU and his “academic performance is exceptional.” Palo, according to the Court, “has all the same rights and privileges of all other students” with the exception of participating on the ISU men’s basketball team. Palo is a fifth-year senior and an “irreparable injury” will occur if Palo is “not allowed to return to the team as his time is short and there is no ‘next season’ concerning his eligibility.” Accordingly, the Court granted Palo’s request to participate on the ISU men’s basketball team while this matter is pending.

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