Lawmakers squabble over student’s eligibility

Hours after a state senator quietly accused the Louisiana High School Athletic Association of playing chicken with legislators Monday over a dispute involving an African refugee, a New Orleans lawmaker unleashed the Mercedes-Benz Superdome as a bargaining chip.

State Rep. Neil Abramson went to the House floor with House Bill 1276, which would prohibit the Superdome from hosting the high school playoffs for a year unless the LHSAA allows a student who “arrived in the United States in 2007 as a refugee from Uganda with little more than the clothes on his back” to play prep football.

HB1276 would affect just one student: Episcopal High School junior Clement Mubungirwa.

Born in Goma, Congo, Mubungirwa fled with his family on foot, lived in a refugee camp in Uganda and arrived in the U.S. at age 12.

He had little formal education and spoke little English, resulting in him repeating two grades as he worked to catch up with his peers.

Mubungirwa played soccer, then discovered football. He turns 19 on July 7, weeks ahead of starting his senior year at Episcopal in Baton Rouge.

LHSAA rules have long prohibited students from playing sports if they turn 19 before Sept. 1. The association refused to bend the rules for Mubungirwa, who has played three years of high school football.

“This is a mistake that’s not doing justice,” Abramson said.

Abramson, an Episcopal Baton Rouge alumnus, wants to make the Superdome off limits in the 2014-2015 school year unless the LHSAA caves in.

A few legislators expressed concerns about using such a big stick.

“It’s almost like extortion, isn’t it?” state Rep. Eddie Lambert, R-Prairieville, asked.

Abramson, a Democrat whose district includes Uptown New Orleans, made no apologies, saying he’s trying to send a signal to the LHSAA. He presented the bill, then pulled it to give the LHSAA time to think it over.

It was the second time in the day that Mubungirwa’s story unfolded at the State Capitol.

Earlier Monday, the House Committee on Civil Law and Procedure advanced Senate Bill 633 on an 8-3 vote to require third-party arbitration on eligibility issues, which would give Mubungirwa an appeals avenue other than litigation.

The bill is one step away from the governor’s desk.

Discussing Mubungirwa’s situation before the committee meeting began, state Sen. J.P. Morrell, D-New Orleans, could be overheard lamenting that the LHSAA won’t reconsider its rejection of the high school student’s appeal.

Morrell compared the situation with the game of chicken, suggesting the LHSAA is testing the Legislature.

The committee heard a lot about Mubungirwa’s horrific life story. His father vanished, presumably because he was murdered by rebel forces in the family’s homeland. Mubungirwa suffered starvation and malaria. A broken leg was treated with herbs and set with bamboo.

LHSAA Executive Director Kenny Henderson asked legislators not to meddle. He said rules changes need to come from school principals.

Henderson said the LHSAA has to uphold the rule, no matter how heartbreaking the life story or how close the birth date to the Sept. 1 cutoff. He said one player missed the cutoff because he was born 2 minutes before midnight on Aug. 31.

“Each school in our state has a Clement. He may not be a refugee from Africa, but he has a similar story. He is from our own country, our own state,” he said, describing children born into families shattered by poverty and violence.

Making an exception even once would open the LHSAA to liability should Mubungirwa hurt another player on the field, Henderson said. The LHSAA has never overturned its rule regarding 19-year-olds. The rule is believed to date back to the 1920s. Mubungirwa’s appeal to the LHSAA was denied earlier this year on a 12-8 vote, one of the closest margins ever.

SB633’s sponsor, state Sen. Dan Claitor, said wealthier students would take the LHSAA to task by suing. Claitor, R-Baton Rouge, said middle-class students do not have that avenue.

“If you’re an African refugee that came to the United States with nothing at all other than the dream of a better life, arbitration would seem to be a whole lot less expensive venue,” Claitor said.

State Rep. John Bel Edwards, D-Amite, questioned whether SB633 would actually help Mubungirwa. “I’m at a loss for how this instrument addresses the case,” Edwards said.

Edwards compared Mubungirwa’s predicament to the state’s law prohibiting those under 21 from buying alcohol. Either you’re 21 or you’re not, he said, suggesting that an arbitrator could not bend a standing rule against certain 19-year-olds playing high school football.

Others criticized the LHSAA for refusing to make an exception and acknowledge Mubungirwa’s dream of playing football during his senior year of high school.

Jeanne James, who helped the Mubungirwa family get settled in Baton Rouge, said she naively thought Mubungirwa’s case would stand on its own merits before the LHSAA. “At 5’9” and 170 pounds, Clement doesn’t pose the physical threat ... Age does not always equal size,” James said.

State Rep. Ray Garofalo, R-Meraux, noted that high school students are playing at 19. As long as they turn 19 after Sept. 1, they’re free to play, he said.

“We have 19-year-olds playing. If your rule is 19 years old then maybe it should be 19,” Garofalo told Henderson.

The committee’s chairman, Abramson, scolded LHSAA officials for refusing to make an exception for Mubungirwa. He said Mubungirwa hasn’t played four years of high school football.

“This is one of the oldest rules in the history of the LHSAA, and there’s never been an exception. And it appears to me every time I hear this there’s some pride in that ... I’ve got to believe that there’s got to be a situation which is deserving of an exception to a rule, and of all the cases that I’ve heard about, talked about, if there ever was one, this is it,” Abramson said.