Panel sides with student

Advocate Photo by WILL SENTELL -- Episcopal High School student Clement Mubungirwa
Advocate Photo by WILL SENTELL -- Episcopal High School student Clement Mubungirwa

Torn between an Episcopal High School student’s dream and football safety, the Senate Education Committee on Wednesday approved a bill aimed at giving Clement Mubungirwa another chance to suit up this fall.

The proposal, Senate Bill 633, would require third-party arbitration on eligibility issues — the sticking point in whether Mubungirwa can play at the age of 19.

The legislation next faces action in the full Senate, where it faces a wide range of questions, including how the arbitration appeal process would work.

Mubungirwa, a junior, will be 19 on July 7, officials said.

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

Myra Mansur, athletic director at Episcopal, said the issue is about opportunity for a youngster who arrived in the United States in 2007 via Catholic Charities after time in a refugee camp in war-torn Uganda.

“His entire family became citizens last year, July 4, 2013,” Mansur said after the hearing.

“They are in America, the land of opportunity, and we are going to deny him that? It makes me very sad,” she said.

Mansur said the bill would set up an “unbiased party” outside of the LHSAA to review the eligibility issue.

But LHSAA Executive Director Kenny Henderson told the committee that if Mubungirwa played this fall and hurt another athlete “then the lawsuits are going to happen.”

Henderson said that, as far as he knows, the association’s panel that reviews appeals has never allowed a 19-year-old student to play football.

“Every group that has athletics has an age cutoff,” he said.

The bill sparked a jammed hearing at the State Capitol, with Episcopal students filling committee room seats usually filled by lobbyists and onlookers.

At one point, state Sen. Dan Claitor, R-Baton Rouge, asked how many in the hearing room would support the pro-Mubungirwa testimony.

Most in the audience rose.

Mubungirwa and his mom sat through the hearing on the front row.

The youngster at the center of the controversy is 5 feet, 8 inches tall, weighs 175 pounds and has played fullback and defense end for the Knights.

He is also a soccer standout.

Mansur said Mubungirwa arrived in the U.S. at the age of 12.

He attended St. Aloysisus School for a time before moving to Episcopal as an eighth-grader.

The student was born in Congo Goma. His native language is Swahili, and he has said previously that he could barely speak English when he arrived in the U.S.

Mansur said his athletic progress was affected by the need to catch up in the classroom.

“He is not going to achieve any kind of academic aid in college, but he could possibly earn athletic aid if given the opportunity,” she said. “It is about opportunity, it is about giving him that chance.”

Gary Duhe, director of football coaches for the LHSAA, told the committee that the proposed law could create a loophole that coaches would use to keep talented athletes in school.

“I would just caution you to be very, very careful,” Duhe told senators.

Henderson said LHSAA members voted a year ago to reject efforts to move the cutoff for 19-year-olds from Sept. 1 to Aug. 1.

Kevin Pond, who lives in Covington, urged the committee to approve the bill and said he went through a similar experience.

Pond said that, in 1995, the LHSAA voted 19-1 to deny his request to play football as a senior, and 30 days over the age cutoff.

He said state legislation paved the way for him to play.