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COMMENTARY: Rule fine in theory, cruel in reality

The obvious: There is nothing unclear or deceptive about rule 386.780 of the Nevada Interscholastic Activities Association handbook, which states that “after a pupil enrolls in the ninth grade, the pupil is eligible to participate in a sanctioned sport for not more than eight consecutive semesters.”
 
Therefore, by rule, Lawrence Stokes should be ineligible to play soccer and run track as a senior at Silverado High this year.
 
The not-so obvious: Things aren’t always so nice and tidy.
 
At worst, Stokes is an excellent case study, his initial appeal for eligibility having been denied by the Clark County School District athletics office and reviewed and affirmed by the NIAA on Wednesday.
 
It’s hardly an isolated incident. Each school year brings a number of eligibility issues. Each has its own story, its own facts, its own basis for which to request leniency.
 
Stokes isn’t the best soccer player at Silverado, but he would start in the midfield, and the Skyhawks would be better with him when their season opens Monday.
 
He is also an exemplary student with a grade-point average above 4.0 and a daily schedule of advanced placement courses.
 
He spent last year as an exchange student in Switzerland, attending classes taught only in German and gaining a life experience his parents felt was invaluable when deciding to send him to study in his mother’s homeland.
 
His family was told about the rule and its potential outcome before he departed.
 
They didn’t follow up. That’s on them.
 
The hard-liner would suggest he chose the experience over sports, that if there was any doubt as to his eligibility upon return, he should have considered not going. There is much merit to that opinion.
 
It’s just a shame for a kid who seems to do everything right.
 
“I went (to Switzerland) for the education and to learn a new culture,” Lawrence said. “Had I known for sure this would happen, I wouldn’t have gone.”
 
I understand the rule and its importance, that many fifth-year seniors are the result of not taking care of responsibilities in the classroom, that there are those who will scheme and plot and do their best to evade the statute and play longer than what is deemed fair, that some would do anything to claim hardship and take what colleges label a redshirt year.
 
Stokes didn’t go to Switzerland to better himself in soccer. He played on a team in the small town where he lived, but said it was more hobby than anything and the level not that of high school here.
 
“It’s not like we are trying to bring back Pele or some 20-year-old kid who went to a soccer academy in Europe,” Silverado coach John Cwik said. “Here was a kid who is never in trouble, goes to class, gets great grades and was just trying to better himself as a person.
 
“I understand it’s not a hardship case. I understand why the rule is in place. I would just hope that when these cases are looked at on an individual basis, they would see a kid like Lawrence is not trying to get away with anything and just wants to play his senior year and graduate with his classmates. He is paying a heavy price.”
 
And yet by rule, the correct one.
 
There are other steps available to the family, beginning with a $500 nonrefundable fee for the case to be handed over to a hearing officer for a review and final decision.
 
There is also the legal avenue, although Cwik doesn’t think the Stokes family would take that route.
 
It’s a tough one. There is the argument that if Stokes is allowed to compete, what does that say for countless other similar cases that have or will be denied by the district or NIAA? If one athlete is granted eligibility, should all others be?
 
Look. Rules are critical to uphold the integrity of prep sports. This isn’t a bad one by any stretch. People cheat. Schools recruit. There must be eligibility limits.
 
But many times, the facts have a little gray to them, like a young man who should be held as a shining example for all that is right with prep athletes making a choice to travel overseas and better himself as a student and person.
 
“I’m a mom, so it’s upsetting,” Astrid Stokes said. “We all live by rules. I know that. But it makes me sad that my son is caught up in this one. I suppose we made a mistake sending him to Switzerland to learn about life and gain such experience.”
 
I hate to think that would ever be considered a wrong choice.
 
By rule, Lawrence Stokes should be ineligible for sports his senior year.
 
It’s just so darn difficult to type the words, is all.

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