A Brick Township High School place-kicker with multisymptom autism who garnered national attention with a game-winning field goal last fall is challenging a New Jersey State Interscholastic Athletic Association (NJSIAA) ruling that denies him a fifth year of eligibility.
The NJSIAA’s eligibility appeals committee, citing rules that don’t allow student-athletes to play a sport for more than four years or to compete after turning 19, voted unanimously last month to deny Anthony Starego a waiver for the 2013 season.
Starego, who completed his fourth year of high school football last fall, turns 19 in June but functions like a 10-year-old academically because of his disability.
His parents filed a petition Tuesday, on the final day of Autism Awareness Month, appealing the NJSIAA’s ruling to state Department of Education Commissioner Christopher Cerf.
The NJSIAA, according to a spokesperson, will not comment on Starego’s appeal beyond a statement it released last month that outlined the association’s reasons for denying him a waiver.
In addition to the eight-semester and age-restriction rules — partly in place to prevent “redshirting,” the practice of gaining a competitive advantage by sitting out a year while maturing — the NJSIAA said it rejected Starego’s appeal because football is a contact sport, he has the potential to be a difference-maker and as an incumbent starter he could displace a teammate.
Starego’s father, Ray, said the benefits Anthony derives from being a member of Brick Township’s football program have contributed largely to his cognitive and social development, and the NJSIAA’s denial of additional eligibility will cause irreparable harm.
The chances of Cerf reversing the NJSIAA decision appear to be slim. Only once in the NJSIAA’s 94-year history has a commissioner of education overturned an eligibility appeals committee decision. The reversal was on a due process technicality not present in Starego’s case (the 2002 ruling, ironically, led to a fifth year of playing time for Asbury Park quarterback Marc Taylor, who as a junior set the Shore Conference’s single-season passing record).
A nongraded student with an Individualized Education Program (IEP) who is not enrolled in a particular grade, Starego is entitled under federal law, until age 21, to a free and appropriate public education, including nonacademic and extracurricular services.
Ray Starego said he doesn’t understand why Anthony can partake in all the services and extracurricular activities Brick Township provides with the lone exception of athletics. Nothing, for example, would preclude Anthony from displacing another student by landing a lead role in the school play or becoming a member of the debate team at age 19.
After kicking four extra points in a 28-27 upset of Toms River East and the winning field goal in the closing seconds of a 24-21 victory over Toms River North the following week, Starego’s story was featured on ESPN and “The Today Show” last fall.
“All my life I’ve been a knucklehead and now I’m not a knucklehead anymore,” Ray Starego said Anthony told himself while cradling the special-teams game ball he received last season.
Anger issues, biting, yelling and disruptive behavior were the norm for Anthony after the Staregos adopted him 15 years ago. Additionally, Anthony was tactile sensitive, meaning the slightest touch would make him uncomfortable.
“After five or six years of school,” Ray Starego told the NJSIAA’s eligibility appeals committee, “we were no closer to 2 plus 2 equals 4 than we were when we started.”
Ray Starego said he wondered if the NJSIAA would have granted a waiver had Anthony participated in a noncontact sport, or had his son been a student-athlete with little or no chance of impacting a game as was a Pennsylvania football player with a learning disability who won a 2001 lawsuit against that state’s athletic association.
A Pennsylvania district judge overturned a Pennsylvania Interscholastic Athletic Association (PIAA) ruling that banned 19-year-old Luis Cruz from playing football because of his age. Unlike Starego, however, Cruz played just three seasons at the time of his appeal.
Regardless, Ray Starego said he believes the Cruz decision, along with a 2001 U.S. Supreme Court ruling that the PGA Tour could not lawfully deny disabled golfer Casey Martin the option to ride in a golf cart between shots, are legal precedents favoring Anthony (Ray Starego said he believed one could equate the golf cart to a fifth year of eligibility waiver, both benefits to which athletes without disabilities are not entitled).
Ray Starego said those who believe floodgates would open as the result of Anthony — an extraordinarily unique student-athlete with a disability — being granted a waiver should consider the aftermath of the Cruz decision.
Melissa Mertz, assistant director of the PIAA, said the Cruz ruling did not generate an influx of similar eligibility appeals over the last decade but that the PIAA has since strengthened its bylaws regarding the eight-semester and age-restriction rules.
The Illinois High School Association (IHSA) plans to similarly amend its bylaws this summer after a fifth-year high school student with Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder received a temporary injunction in January on Americans with Disability Act grounds that allowed him to wrestle after the IHSA denied him a waiver.
‘Something needs to change’
“Usually, case decisions help pave the way for change,” Ray Starego said. “That decision in Pennsylvania just made it even harder for disabled kids because they have now fortified their regulations. So, it had the opposite effect. That’s a systemic problem. That’s what tells me something needs to change.”
The redundancy of kicking extra points and field goals in practice suits Anthony’s autism, whose core symptoms include repetitive behaviors.
In seventh grade, Anthony couldn’t reach the goal line from 10 yards out. By eighth grade, he attempted three extra points in Pop Warner games, missing each.
After becoming a member of the Brick Township football program, however, everything suddenly and unexpectedly began to click, not just from the kicking tee, but in many aspects of Anthony’s life.
Anthony, who trains under former Rutgers University kicker Lee McDonald, was named the varsity team’s starting kicker halfway through the 2012 season. He booted a career-long 33-yard field goal in a 6-3 loss to Lacey.
The greatest strides Anthony made, however, were off the field, as Ray Starego attributed his son’s academic and social progress largely to his membership on the football team.
For that reason, Ray Starego said the 2001 testimony of Kim Woods, director of special-education services at Ridley High School, which Cruz attended, resonated so much with him that he believes she could have been talking about his own son.
Woods testified that the desired post-school outcomes in Cruz’s IEPs were supported by his athletic participation. She said scholastic sports enabled Cruz to interact with regular peers and adults, familiarized him with demands and responsibilities and permitted him to develop interpersonal skills which would help him maintain a job after high school. She said Cruz’s athletic participation helped him develop self-esteem, motivation and maturity.
The NJSIAA counters that all student-athletes, disabled or not, derive similar benefits from playing interscholastic sports and that Anthony should not be entitled to “special treatment.”
The difference, Ray Starego said, is that Anthony, with his multisymptom autism and moderate cognitive impairment, functions like a 10-year-old, not an academically qualified high school athlete. Therefore, he continued, the benefits of a fifth year of eligibility would mean exponentially more to Anthony than a peer without disability or other students who request a waiver.
Woods also testified that Cruz’s goals could not be fully achieved by merely practicing with a team but should be seen through to completion of a project by participating in contests.
Ray Starego said Woods’ testimony best explains why the NJSIAA’s offer to allow Anthony “to practice and participate in scrimmages” next season falls short of providing the benefits Anthony can derive from playing in games.
“He’s not stupid,” Ray Starego said of his son. “He understands the difference between participating and actually being able to compete with his teammates.”
Furthermore, Ray Starego said, he believes the NJSIAA contradicts itself with a concession to allow Anthony to practice and scrimmage because the risk of injury to a smaller player and the loss of valuable snaps for a teammate — two reasons for denying a waiver — still would exist under those conditions.
Ray Starego, who is willing to allow Anthony to only kick field goals and extra points and not take part in kickoffs, said place-kickers are rarely, if ever, involved in contact. The potential still exists, though, for botched snaps and holds that could lead to a tackling play involving his 6-foot-2, 190-pound son. Ray Starego said he believes kickers are more likely to be roughed than block or tackle opponents. Additionally, Ray Starego said a component of Anthony’s autism causes him to shy away from contact.
“The only logical conclusion I can come up with,” Ray Starego said regarding the NJSIAA’s decision, “is that it’s really about winning and losing.”
This year, the U.S Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights, in a 13-page guidance document, strongly reminded public school districts of their responsibility to include students with disabilities in existing sports programs or to provide equal alternatives.
As a result, Bob Gardner, executive director for the National Federation of High School Associations, said he believed the number of student-athletes with disabilities is on the rise. He said that increase in participation probably will generate more challenges to statewide athletic association rules.
“The NJSIAA and its 433 member schools have a proven record of accommodating students with disabilities and enabling them to participate in high school sports,” the association said in response to the January 2013 guidance document.
“The NJSIAA has a process for granting waivers from our eligibility rules; we’ve had wheelchair events at our track championships; we’ve allowed disabled swimmers to start their race in the water rather than on blocks; we’ve allowed guides to assist blind runners; we permit wrestlers to use prosthetics; we allow golfers to take a cart instead of having to walk; and we have special rules for classified students to meet our academic requirements.”
Ray Starego called his son’s game-winning field goal against Toms River North “a kick of hope” for student-athletes with disabilities everywhere.
Should Cerf reject the Staregos’ appeal, Ray Starego said a court-ordered injunction or an amendment to statewide athletic association rules might be the only hope Anthony and others like him might have for a fifth year of athletic eligibility.