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High school football: Two Jordan players denied eligibility

Published: Tuesday, Sept. 11 2012 7:17 p.m. MDT

SALT LAKE CITY — Two football players who moved to Utah from California will not be playing football at Jordan High this season.

Cliff Betson and Dynamite-Jones Fa'agata, both seniors, were denied both a temporary restraining order and a preliminary injunction by Third District Judge Keith Kelly Tuesday afternoon.

The boys filed a lawsuit against the Utah High School Activities Association last week in hopes of salvaging their senior football seasons. In Tuesday's hearing, attorney for the boys, Laura Lui, argued they deserved immediate intervention from the court because of what they would lose.

"They can never get their senior seasons back," she said. "They've already lost half their senior seasons and the opportunities that will come from being seen."

She said both boys hoped to earn college scholarships to play football and by depriving them of the chance to play sports, the court was depriving them of the opportunity to gain an education.

But UHSAA attorney Mark Van Wagoner argued that granting a TRO in the case would give the boys something that they have never had. The boys didn't file their transfer paperwork until mid-August so they have never been eligible to play in games. They do practice with the team, which is allowed.

"The loss of those games is not the association's fault," said Van Wagoner. "It has everything to do with their own inaction."

Lui said forcing the boys to miss more games while awaiting a trial date caused them irreparable harm.

Van Wagoner said the injury had to be legal and the courts have repeatedly found that there is "no legal right to participate in athletics."

The judge ultimately sided with the UHSAA on the TRO and preliminary injunction issue. He set a trial date of Nov. 30 — which is two weeks after the high school football season has concluded.

Lui said the boys plan to pursue the trial even though it means missing their football season.

"The allegations raised in the complaint raise serious constitutional violations," she said. "We are pleased with decision of the Court finding that the UHSAA is a state actor and must comport with constitutional guarantees. My clients look forward to their day in court."

The boys' mothers flew in from California to attend the hearing and Fa'agata's mother reiterated that she hoped to move to Utah, something she wrote in a letter to the UHSAA even before the boys were ruled ineligible.

Van Wagoner said he was pleased with the decision.

"We're always pleased when yet another court confirms that we follow the law in what we do," said Van Wagoner.

But Lui said the court made no ruling on whether the UHSAA's decision in this case was arbitrary or capricious. It is her contention that it was.

One of Lui's arguments is that the UHSAA's rules violate the equal protection guaranteed in the constitution because the rules treat athletes differently than other students. She gave the example of a student involved in choir who was allowed to take her talents to any school she desired without being subject to the transfer rule.

"But if you're an athlete that has a talent that you've developed, we care," she said, pointing out that athletes were subject to severe restrictions once they established eligibility at a high school.

Van Wagoner didn't address this issue in the hearing because he said it wasn't relevant to the temporary restraining order. He said there is a difference between sports and activities and it has to do with whether or not the activity has something to do with the school's curriculum.

"That's the distinction we draw," he said. "Those that are not part of the curriculum, require a transfer rule. The activities, which are based on the curriculum — which are music, debate, theater and speech — those are all things that are taught in the high school. The other things are intended to be extra curricular activities ... The (students) are not similarly situated."

email: adonaldson@desnews.com

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