For high school athletic directors in Minnesota, figuring out whether an athlete is eligible to play sports has never been more difficult.
As cases involving athletes who move to a new school become more complex — and raise more questions — some athletic directors say they are often taking on the role of a private detective. They check divorce records and even utility bills to see whether students are indeed living where they claim to be.
“You have to pry,” said Mark Solberg, the activities director at Cambridge-Isanti High School.
Two recent cases, including eligibility questions that forced Achiever Academy, an online hockey school in the Twin Cities, to drop out of the girls’ hockey state tournament playoffs, have pushed the envelope on a complicated topic.
The confusion emerged again when a high-profile wrestler transferred from defending state champion Apple Valley High School and attempted to wrestle for his new high school in the state tournament just days after enrolling in early February.
The Minnesota State High School League (MSHSL) has tried to stay ahead of the complexities of modern families. There are rules governing eligibility when there is a court-ordered change of residence for child protection reasons. There are also rules when a student moves from one custodial parent to another custodial parent when the parents have joint legal and physical custody — which, among other things, requires the parents to give the athletic director a copy of their divorce decree.
Apple Valley, which boasts the state’s top high school wrestling program, is providing fresh evidence of how messy transfer and eligibility issues can get. Several of the program’s highly ranked wrestlers have moved to the school from out of state.
A series of police reports in Apple Valley, stretching back to May, show that school officials have been struggling with the behavior of one wrestler — the police reports do not identify him by name — who was living with a high school cafeteria employee because the wrestler’s father was still living in Missouri. In January, the cafeteria worker obtained an order of protection against the wrestler, who she said had at one point “threatened to have the Missouri Ku Klux Klan come to Apple Valley and take care of her.”
Apple Valley Principal Steve Degenaar and Craig Perry, an MSHSL official, declined to comment on the situation, but both said that students who move into Minnesota before they enter the ninth grade — suggesting that may be the case here — are not bound by high school transfer and eligibility rules.
Although the MSHSL plays an influential — and at times, determining — role in the cases, much of the work falls to already overworked athletic directors.
“I’ve dug up — requested — [bills] to prove that they’re at an address,” said Jason Obarski, the athletic director at Prairie Seeds Academy, the Brooklyn Park charter school that in 2012 was disqualified from the state soccer tournament over player eligibility questions.
Obarski, who became AD in 2013, said some athletic directors use the “check and make sure the tooth brush is wet” test to make sure an athlete is living where they say they are.
“I’ve gone pretty close [to] that,” he said.
One lawyer who has studied the issues said that because of the complexities “the activities director might as well go out and get a law degree.”
Decisions in secret
In many corners, the MSHSL has drawn praise. “There’s no doubt that it’s complicated,” said Deb Pauly, a school board chairwoman in Jordan who sits on the state high school league board. But the league, she said, has “very, very, very strict and good standards.”
Pauly acknowledged that because many of the MSHSL’s deliberations on eligibility and transfers are private — and often involve nonpublic data and minors — the public is largely in the dark about how specific decisions are made. “It’s just unfortunate [and] sad,” she said.
The latest example involved Dayton Racer, a highly touted high school wrestler who abruptly left Apple Valley’s defending state champion team and enrolled at a small western Minnesota school in a last-minute attempt to wrestle in the upcoming state tournament. Even after a decision was made on Racer’s eligibility — Racer, in the end, did not wrestle for the school — Wheaton High School principal Russell Armstrong said he had been told not to discuss the case or make the final ruling public.
Armstrong said that the episode was were stressful, causing him to sift through the reasons Racer left Apple Valley.
It “seemed like as every day went by, there were more and more layers,” said Armstrong. “You have to be talking to lawyers, and you have to be dealing with the high school league and parents.” People were saying, “We need a decision, we need it now,” said Armstrong.
With so much at stake, some parents have challenged the authority of the MSHSL.
One vivid example came in 2012 when the parents of a hockey player filed a federal lawsuit against the MSHSL — which the parents won. The suit came after league officials attempted to block the athlete’s eligibility after the family argued it was switching schools because a new school offered a broader array of college-prep classes.
In that case, the MSHSL ruled the athlete ineligible for one year even though officials at the Academy of Holy Angels and Lakeville North — the school he left and the one he transferred to, respectively — supported the family. The family also hired the dean of a business school to provide an expert opinion of the two schools’ college-prep business classes.
League officials argued that ruling for the athlete “would undermine its control” over the interpretation of MSHSL bylaws and “create administrative burdens” because the league would have to hold hearings “anytime a student sought to transfer to a school with a different slate of advanced course offerings.”
Despite the league’s arguments, a federal judge in November 2012 ruled in favor of the family and granted them a preliminary injunction. Nine days later, the league and the family settled the case, allowing the athlete to be “fully eligible to participate in varsity athletics.”