Episcopal eligibility bill clears Louisiana Legislature

A bill aimed at giving a football player at Episcopal High School another chance to play this fall at the age of 19 won final legislative approval Thursday.

The state House approved the measure 54-28, one more than the minimum needed for passage.

The measure, Senate Bill 633, now goes to Gov. Bobby Jindal.

The legislation would require third-party arbitration on eligibility issues, which is the sticking point in the case of Episcopal student Clement Mubungirwa.

Rules of the Louisiana High School Athletic Association ban students from playing sports if they turn 19 before Sept. 1.

Mubungirwa, a rising senior, will be 19 on July 7.

Backers of the bill say a new option is needed for extraordinary cases.

“We need some level of review,” said state Rep. Neil Abramson, D-New Orleans and House sponsor of the bill.

“Not everybody can afford an attorney, not everybody can get a pro bono (without charge) attorney,” said Abramson, who is an attorney and former quarterback at Episcopal.

Rep. Ted James, D-Baton Rouge, backed the bill. “It is about fairness and it is about giving an opportunity for a kid, a family, and not just this one kid,” James said.

House Democratic Caucus Chairman John Bel Edwards, D-Amite, questioned what difference arbitration would make, saying the eligibility rules are clear.

State Rep. Sam Jones, D-Franklin, asked whether lawmakers are qualified to wade into high school eligibility issues.

Mubungirwa arrived in the U.S. at the age of 12 through Catholic Charities after time in a refugee camp in war-torn Uganda.

His native language is Swahili, and he said previously that he could barely speak English when he arrived in the U.S. in 2007.

Mubungirwa, who is also a soccer standout, made an impression on the 15-year-old son of state Rep. Alfred Williams, D-Baton Rouge and a supporter of the bill.

Williams said that, after his son’s team lost to Mubungirwa’s team 7-1, the two youngsters talked after the game. “For the first time after a soccer game, for the 30-minute drive home, all he talked about was that young man and how wonderful he was,” Williams told the House.

The chief sponsor of SB633 is state Sen. Dan Claitor, R-Baton Rouge.

The state Senate narrowly approved the legislation earlier.

LHSAA officials opposed the measure, which they said could lead to safety problems on the football field and spark lawsuits.

Under the bill, each party would be responsible for the cost of representation. Decisions could not be appealed.

Follow Will Sentell on Twitter, @WillSentell. For more coverage of Louisiana government and politics, follow our Politics blog at http://blogs.theadvocate.com/politicsblog.