Federal judge to determine Starego's playing status

Federal judge to determine Starego's playing status

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Federal judge to determine Starego's playing status

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A federal judge will decide whether Anthony Starego, a Brick Township High School placekicker with multi-symptom autism and other developmental disabilities who garnered national attention last season with a game-winning field goal, should be allowed to return to the gridiron.

Alleging the NJSIAA and State Department of Education are violating their son’s civil rights by denying him a fifth year of athletic eligibility, Starego’s parents on Friday amended their federal complaint with the U.S. District Court for the District of New Jersey in Trenton, asking for an injunction that would allow Anthony to compete one more season.

The complaint comes a little more than a month after the Staregos filed a federal lawsuit against the NJSIAA — essentially alerting the court at that time that a request for injunctive relief was imminent — and just days after State Department of Education Commissioner Christopher Cerf upheld the NJSIAA eligibility appeals committee’s unanimous ruling that denied Starego a waiver for the 2013 campaign.

“The NJSIAA is pleased the Commissioner of Education upheld our association’s original decision on this matter,” NJSIAA Executive Director Steve Timko said in a prepared statement. “As anticipated, the NJSIAA was served today with a new Federal Court complaint. We will file our reply within the specified time, and remain confident in our decision.”

The NJSIAA eligibility appeals committee, in its decision, cited association rules that don’t allow student-athletes to play a sport for more than four years or to compete after turning 19. Starego, who turned 19 last month, has already played four seasons.

A non-graded student with an Individualized Education Program (IEP) that, according to the complaint, addresses football, Starego is not enrolled in a particular grade. He is entitled under federal law until age 21 to a free and appropriate public education including nonacademic and extracurricular services.

The complaint alleges Starego is entitled to a fifth year of eligibility under the federal Americans with Disability Act (ADA), which states in part that reasonable accommodations must be made to include those with disabilities in interscholastic competition.

Starego functions like a 10-year-old academically because of his disabilities. They include ADHD and cognitive impairments.

“The matter is now in Judge (Freda) Wolfson’s hands and we will wait for the court’s decision,” said Starego’s attorney, Gary S. Mayerson.

Mayerson is the founding partner of New York City-based Mayerson & Associates, the nation’s first law firm dedicated to representing children and adolescents with autism spectrum disorders and related developmental disabilities.

The complaint says Starego deserves special treatment through a limited one-year waiver as a reasonable accommodation under the ADA because he is an IEP student with a disability who would not otherwise be eligible to compete this fall.

Citing 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, the complaint also alleges the NJSIAA failed, as mandated by the high court’s decision, to consider Starego’s personal circumstances in deciding whether to accommodate his disability.

In addition to the association’s 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.

Mayerson attempts to refute each of the NJSIAA’s reasons for denying a waiver in the 17-page complaint and accompanying memorandum of law including the age restriction rule.

He cites a U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania decision which overturned a Pennsylvania Interscholastic Athletic Association ruling that banned a 19-year-old developmentally disabled football player from competing because of his age. Unlike Starego, however, that student-athlete had played just three seasons.

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 garnered national attention last fall on ESPN and The Today Show.

Starego, under NJSIAA rules, is allowed to practice with Brick’s football team, which is expected to open training camp on August 12.

Mayerson has requested that the court grant injunctive relief before September.

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