By Joe Huber

Age Eligibility in High School Athletics:
When State Laws and Federal Regulations Clash

Joseph H. Huber

Clara Glass, 19, is currently a senior year student at the Pinellas Park High School, Largo, Florida. Unlike the two previous years, Clara, who is mildly retarded, was denied the opportunity to participate with her high school swim team because she exceeded the Florida High School Activities Association (FHSAA) age limit of 18. Clara's individualized education plan (IEP) included statements addressing the need for development of her socialization skills but did not specify participation on the swim team.

The FHSAA by laws read that "any student who becomes 19 years of age before September 1 shall be ineligible for further participation in interscholastic athletics." In addition, the bylaws state that the "Executive Committee shall have authority to set aside the effect of any eligibility rule except the age limit"

Public Law 93-112 indicates handicapped students have an equal opportunity to participate in interscholastic athletics (Federal Register, May 4, 1977). However, because of their unique needs many handicapped children do not complete their high school education at age 19. With the passage of PL 94-142 (Federal Register, August 23, 1977) the U.S. Government recognized the need to extend the age rule for public education to 21 for qualified students with handicapping disabilities.

To address her daughter's developmental needs and the FHSAA's ineligibility ruling, Ms. Glass sought and was granted permission to appear before the Executive Committee on August 9, 1990. Ms. Glass explained to the Committee that Clara was adopted at age nine after years of foster care and reported cases of abuse and neglect. It was also noted that Clara's private counselor encouraged her involvement with the high school swim team in an effort to improve her self-confidence and enhance appropriate peer relationships.

In her comments before the FHSAA, Ms. Glass stated that "she understands the need for an age eligibility rule but that 'equal opportunity' can in and by itself be discriminatory." Ms. Glass further argued that if a waiver to the rule was not granted, terminating Clara's participation would prevent her involvement in the least restrictive environment and could have an adverse effect on her daughter's ability to lead a normal life as a high school student.

The FHSAA Executive Committee voted 5-0-0 to deny Clara the opportunity to participate at the age of 19.

In a letter to the high school principal, the Committee explained that "Clara is not ineligible because of her handi cap. She is ineligible because I she is in violation of the age rule." Commenting on the decision, Commissioner Fred E. Rozelle noted that "the eligibility rule of age 19 has never been overturned in Florida."

The FHSAA ruling was consistent with the age stan dard (19 before September 1) recommended for athletes by the National. Federation of State High School Associations (NFSHSA). Helen Upton, Assistant Director of the NFSHSA, commented that "states are sovereign when regulating interscholastic activities; there is no appeal beyond the state level." She did note, however, that "ten states currently have the age.of20 as an eligibility standard."

In the Glass case, safety and equity concerns addressed by the bylaws of the state athletic association were in conflict with Clara's educational needs as designated in her IEP. Ultimately the question to be asked is: How do the Office of Civil Rights and the courts rule when a state's athletic age eligibility rule conflicts with Federal regulations?

Jean Pellen, an attorney with the policy Enforcement Service in the Civil Rights Division (CRD) of the U.S. Department of Education, explained that "the state has the right to make reasonable regulations regarding safety and well being. The age regulation, as it pertains to athletics, is not a violation of a student's civil rights if implementation includes all individuals, including the handicapped, and is applied equally." Recent court decisions, as presented in Cavallaro v. Ambach, 575 Fed. Supp. 171 and Mahan v. Agee, 652 p.2d 765, have supported the age eligibility rule and considered it reasonable and fair.

The recent FHSAA decision regarding Clara Glass coupled with the position ofthe CRD of the U.S. department of Education and recent court decisions make the age eligibility rule a difficult one to overturn. Nevertheless, is it possible that, with careful planning and persistent effort on the part of parents and their advocates, the current number of states (10) with an age eligibility rule of 20 could be increased?