Senate bill would endanger safety of ‘legal’ athletes


In their zeal to come to the rescue of an unfortunately over-aged high school athlete from Africa, two men with the power and authority to create laws convinced the Louisiana Legislature to pass a bill that would endanger the safety of high school athletes of legal age.

Senate Bill 633, authored by Baton Rouge Sen. Dan Claitor and meant to assist a foreign-born student athlete at Episcopal High School in Baton Rouge, would enable this youngster to participate in sports beyond his 19th birthday. Claitor’s bill, which was sent to Gov. Bobby Jindal for final action, would require such eligibility cases to be judged by a third-party arbitrator. New Orleans Rep. Neil Abramson authored a similar bill.

The case involves a junior student who was born in Goma, Congo. Kalule Clement Mubungirwa and his family endured the hardship of living in refugee camps through his formative years until Catholic Charities of Baton Rouge provided the funding in 2007 to bring the boy, his mother and siblings to the U.S. Although slated to reside in Buffalo, N.Y., they arrived in Baton Rouge.

Clement, through a natural gift from God, turned out to be quite an athlete, although he didn’t start out with the skills he now possesses, noted Advocate prep writer Robin Fambrough in a recent column:

“As a freshman, Mubungirwa was a backup defensive end and played on special teams. (As his knowledge of the game and skills developed) he played some running back as a sophomore, then exploded on the scene last fall, rushing for 1,358 yards and 19 touchdowns,” Fambrough wrote. “In soccer, he was part of an EHS team that won the Division III state title in 2013 and helped the Knights to the quarterfinals this season with 33 goals and 11 assists.”

The problem is that this feel-good story has an unhappy follow-up. When his family arrived, Mubungirwa was placed in the seventh grade at a middle school when academically his ability was equivalent to a lower elementary school student. He worked hard to develop the learning skills that made him eligible to compete in sports to this point, but now Clement is 55 days too old to participate any further in LHSAA-sanctioned sports. He would be a 19-year-old competing against youngsters as much as five years younger. The Episcopal School administration and Clement’s family appealed to the LHSAA’s hardship committee, but lost by a 12-8 count.

Age-old safety rule
Since 1955, the LHSAA has had an age-limit rule in place to protect the safety of its athletes.

Claitor and Abramson say an exception should be made for Clement because of the unusual circumstance under which he is here. Abramson’s bill (HB1174) would deny the use of the Mercedes-Benz Superdome for championship football games if the LHSAA does not allow Mubungirwa a final year of eligibility.

This is a ridiculous piece of legislation. According to Superdome management, there are no legal grounds to prohibit the games from being played by a private organization like the LHSAA.

And the key word is “private.”

The LHSAA derives its funding from membership dues, corporate sponsors and gate receipts at championship events.

Knowing this, the bill attacks the LHSAA member schools who use public school buses to transport students and participate in the state-
funded tuition voucher program.

Through correspondence, several principals have asked Jindal to veto Claitor’s bill. A third-party arbitrator would cost the LHSAA or claimant as much as $4,000 per case, depending on which side won. The current appeals process costs neither side a dime.

The LHSAA rarely overturns appeals regarding the age-safety rule, and it shouldn’t. The case of Clement Mubungirwa is a story of triumph through charity, but the safety of younger athletes should always overrule such exceptions.

I’m sure these legislators took an oath to uphold and defend the constitution of this state. The LHSAA has a constitution, too. And for two Louisiana legislators to attempt to circumvent it presents a safety issue for every student who competes or will compete in the future. Passage of this exception will open the door to future political whims that violate the age rule.

As an attorney acquaintance likes to remind me, “The trouble with laws is that they are made by lawyers.”

Ron Brocato can be reached at rbrocato@clarionherald.org.

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