Wikimedia Commons / Daniel Olsen
An Alameda County Superior Court judge dealt a devastating blow to the McClymonds High School football team this morning, declining to intervene in a controversial case involving a transfer student — a ruling that means the team likely will not go to playoffs, despite its undefeated record this season.
The dispute centers on transfer student Kevin Davidson, who became the varsity football team's starting quarterback this year after his family moved from Danville to West Oakland. While the California Interscholastic Federation (CIF), the governing body for high school sports, initially determined Davidson was eligible to play on the McClymonds team in August, the CIF reversed its decision after investigating an anonymous tip about Davidson's residency and determining
that the family's primary home was still in Danville.
Last month, after the CIF denied Davidson's appeal, the federation concluded that McClymonds High must forfeit the four games he played in, meaning that the team officially finished with an 8-4 record this year, instead of the original 12-0 record it posted.
The National Center for Youth Law (NCYL), an Oakland-based nonprofit now representing four other players on the McClymonds team, argued in court this morning that a judge should intervene and allow the 12-0 record to stand, given that Davidson was considered eligible at the time that he played those four games. But Alameda County Superior Court Judge Evelio Grillo, while expressing concerns about the CIF process in this case, declined to support the players.
That means that on Sunday, when a panel is set to select schools for regional playoffs, officials will consider McClymonds an 8-4 team, which very likely destroys the team's chances of going to playoffs. And for the four students represented in the legal complaint and others on the team, there's a lot at stake — including the lost opportunity to gain exposure to college recruiters.
"This whole team really set their sights on the state championship for the last year," NCYL staff attorney Erin Liotta said in an interview after the hearing this morning. "They've been training through the spring, through the summer, and this is the year that they were going to do it." Referencing an argument that student Kelton Runnels made in his formal declaration for the case, Liotta continued: "They're high school students. They've worked really hard. This is teaching them and other kids in West Oakland that, I think in [Runnels'] words he said, 'Even if you work really, really hard for something, it can get taken away.' And that's a really sad lesson for kids to have to learn.
"It's hard not to get emotional," she added.
NCYL filed the complaint on behalf of four players: Runnels, an offensive and defensive lineman for the team and a McClymonds senior; LaVance Warren, a running back and a senior; Taivion Foster, a defensive tackle and junior; and Michael Walker, a cornerback and a senior. None of the four students were able to attend the hearing this morning, but Davidson was in attendance (though his attorney declined to let me interview him).
In court, NCYL attorneys requested that the judge reverse the decision requiring that the team's wins be forfeited, arguing that this requirement violated the students' due process and equal protection rights. A key part of the legal argument was that the CIF had failed to provide the team with any official notice that it would forfeit the schools' four wins if Davidson's appeal was unsuccessful.
On the contrary, in October, Russell White, CIF commissioner for Oakland, assured the team that his ruling that Davidson was ineligible would not affect the first four winning games, since "Kevin had been deemed eligible during that time period," according to the complaint. As soon as Davidson became ineligible, he stopped playing for the team. It was only in November that White apparently changed his mind and told McClymonds' staff and students that the four games would not count if Davidson's appeal failed, the NCYL said. And even at that time, the CIF's threat came during a community meeting and not in any official manner or in writing, the attorneys said.
News of the forfeited games blindsided the students, NCYL attorney Leecia Welch argued in court. "They did not have an opportunity to be heard."
Diane Marshall-Freeman, one of the attorneys representing the CIF, pointed out that the team is still under consideration for playoffs, arguing that "there is not harm here. There is no injury." Though the committee that chooses teams for the playoffs considers a number of guidelines — win-loss record, head-to-head competition, common opponents, and more — it appears very likely that the 8-4 record will prevent McClymonds from advancing.
Ultimately, Grillo declined to intervene and side with the team solely because he said he did not believe the individual students had legal standing in this case. At one point early in the hearing, he said, "Participation in athletics is a privilege ... not a constitutionally protected right." But he also repeatedly said that he was troubled by the fact that the CIF was forfeiting games that took place before October 7, when Davidson officially became ineligible. He emphasized that his ruling was narrowly based on his belief that the students don't have standing, telling the NCYL attorneys, "If I thought your clients had standing, I'd rule in your favor."
It's unclear what steps the NCYL can take if, as expected, the team does not make the playoffs on Sunday.