The NJSIAA’s precedent-setting decision, which granted a fifth year of eligibility last week to Anthony Starego, a Brick Township placekicker with multisymptom autism and related cognitive impairments, could open the door for other players with developmental disabilities.
Parents of such student-athletes, however, may not all be inclined to seek an additional season.
Chris Kania, a student with developmental disabilities who spent four years with the East Brunswick High School gridiron program, actually learned to tie his shoes and count as a member of the football team.
Kania’s mother, Bonnie, said the decision to grant Starego a waiver was one which she fully respected but one with which she did not completely concur.
“My feeling is all Chris and any of these students want is to be like the other athletes, and for that reason I don’t think anything special should be done for them,” Bonnie Kania said. “If they want to be treated like everybody else, then they have to follow everybody else’s rules. I don’t think they should make an exception. It doesn’t matter what your developmental disability is. The rule is the rule. That’s just my feeling.”
As trailblazers on the New Jersey gridiron landscape, Kania and Starego have both benefited socially and academically from playing football.
Their teammates have arguably benefited more, learning that students with functional disabilities are no different from others, a paramount component of mainstreaming.
Nongraded students with Individualized Education Programs (IEP) that address football, neither Kania, 20, nor Starego, 19, is enrolled in a particular grade. Both are entitled under federal law to a free and appropriate public education, including nonacademic and extracurricular activities, until the age of 21.
The biggest difference between the two is that Starego – whose last-minute winning field goal against Toms River North a year ago garnered national attention – has the ability to impact the outcome of a game. Any points Kania scored during his tenure with East Brunswick were the result of a prearranged agreement between the head coaches of the competing schools with touchdowns only counting when the contest was lopsided.
Regardless of how either player altered the numbers on the scoreboard, whether splitting the uprights with the game on the line or dashing to the end zone while defenders feigned interest, the invaluable experience for both led to increased self-esteem and confidence.
NJSIAA rules, like those at statewide athletic associations across the country, don’t permit student-athletes to compete after turning 19 prior to Sept. 1 or to play a sport for more than four years.
A threat of pending litigation and mounting legal bills may have been the impetus for the NJSIAA’s decision to grant Starego a waiver, although NJSIAA Executive Director Steve Timko said “given the double-digit increase in statewide classification rates, the association needs to address the needs of our student-athletes and their families.”
Whatever the reason, the NJSIAA, which became the first statewide athletic association in the country to implement a steroid testing program, has become a trendsetter in yet another paramount area, fittingly in a state with the country’s second highest autism rate.
“We have for years been comfortable including people with autism and other disabilities so long as they have remained on the periphery,” said Gary S. Mayerson, an attorney for the Starego family. “Now, however, we must anticipate that there are likely to be more Anthonys in the years to come, offering genuine competition where the outcome is going to count.”
Even if the NJSIAA never again grants a waiver to another developmentally disabled student-athlete who has already played four seasons or turned 19, its decision has generated robust and long-overdue national debate regarding eligibility rules.
Starego’s rare gift is no greater than Kania’s contribution to the sport, but causes most to scrutinize his fifth year of eligibility more than they would that of a peer whose ability can never impact the final score.
Anthony, being developmentally delayed (he functions like a fifth-grader academically), essentially needed an additional season to make up for lost time, something for which he tried to compensate by working year-round at his craft, sometimes under the tutelage of a private kicking coach.
“This demonstrates that there are many things that people with autism can achieve, provided that they have the right teaching support and sufficient practice opportunities,” Mayerson said. “We need to have high expectations and be persistent.”
Statewide athletic associations across the country, however, may not all be receptive to granting waivers for fifth seasons under any circumstances.
Bob Gardner, executive director of the National Federation of High School Associations, previously told NJ Press Media: “All state associations would support the rule that limits a player to four years of eligibility. When you go beyond that for any reason, you set a precedent that could destroy the integrity of a high school program.”
Bonnie Kania will not petition the NJSIAA in an attempt to get a fifth year of eligibility for Chris, who remains a member of the East Brunswick football program as a “graduate assistant coach” this fall.
“There’s ways kids like him can participate in sports, just like he’s being allowed to do now,” Bonnie Kania said. “He’s not playing. He’s out there. They let him condition. They let him lift. He’s helping them with their waters during the game. He’s carrying equipment. It’s just the next phase for him.”
Kania and Starego are both products of functional academic programs designed to prepare developmentally disabled students for the real world. Football has played an additional, but no less central role, in the growth of both young men.
With Chris scheduled to leave East Brunswick in June, Bonnie Kania’s focus has already begun to shift toward his future after high school. She said her “two dreams” for Chris are that he finds a girl who “complements” him and that he “get attached to some college team and get a job and do something there.”
Chris and Anthony, like every other schoolboy who has had an opportunity to shine on the gridiron, will always cherish their football-playing days. One’s career just ended a year sooner than the other’s.
Not all parents, including Bonnie Kania, may believe a fifth year of eligibility is right for their child.
At least now, with the NJSIAA’s precedent-setting decision, those who see an extra year of playing time as beneficial may have an option.
The NJSIAA has cracked the door for student-athletes with developmental disabilities. Will the association open it wider or slam it shut on future challenges to its eligibility rules?
Time will tell if interest in appealing for such waivers is significant and if the NJSIAA is sincere in accommodating the “needs of our student-athletes and their families.”
“We have nothing but our profound thanks for the association,” Starego’s father, Raymond, said. “Anthony, who loves the game of football and being a valued and respected member of the team, gets to play.
“Nothing,” he concluded, “could be more important.”