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Friday, Sept. 20, 2019: Reporting on the hot Section 5 topic has been sloppy

   Leading off today: A little knowledge is a dangerous thing.

   If your mother says she loves you, check it out.

   The first of the two thoughts is a paraphrase of a sentiment widely attributed to Alexander Pope and is meant to suggest one should possess more than just casual familiarity with a subject before attempting to explain it.

   The latter is something that many first-year journalism students hear from their instructor -- perhaps repeatedly. It's meant to remind reporters of the need to verify elements of the story even if they seem obvious.

   I admittedly foul up on both counts on occasion, but (hopefully) never simultaneously in the way that Rochester's media has done collectively in recent days regarding a hot local high school sports topic.

   I'm sure I'll be subjected to return fire by somebody in the business, but a chunk of what's being reported by local media on the issue of East High football star Seven McGee's eligibility status is wrong. Equally distressing, some of what passes for commentary comes too close for comfort to suggesting that the University of Oregon commit deserves a benefit of the doubt that wouldn't be bestowed upon a 165-pound, second-string lineman coming off his fourth transfer in less than two years.

   In the past 72 hours, I've seen and heard:

    • WHAM-AM 1180 radio newscasts throughout Thursday morning mention that McGee moved with his family to California early this year, but returned to Rochester in the spring. As they say in courtrooms, that's a fact not in evidence. For what it's worth, WHAM-TV made the same mistake.

   McGee wasn't living with his family in California and had already used up his one-time exception to the transfer rule that allows for a return to the home district -- really the only rule that matters in this affair -- when he made another move from California to Rochester under similar circumstances the previous year.

    • WHEC-TV and the morning talk show host on WHAM-AM pointed to the seemingly arbitrary nature of a rule requiring an athlete to live in-state for at least six months. That's an incorrect reading of a rule that is irrelevant in this case anyway since it's contingent upon being able to use the one-time exception I just noted.

    The talk show host also cited the rural school district in which he resides, suggesting that students come and go from Puerto Rico all the time and continue to remain eligible to play. Either the AD and superintendent there are ignorant of the rules (not the case) or the students tend to move with their parents each time, which simplifies the process for maintaining eligibility.

    As anyone who's attended the mandatory annual rules review meeting for athletic directors can attest, the rule is cut and dried. Unfortunately, I never see other media at these late-August meetings. This year would have been particularly enlightening for reporters handling high school sports since transfer issues received more attention than I recall in the past.

    • WROC-TV quoted this portion of the transfer rule from the New York State Public High School Athletic Association handbook: "A student who transfers without a corresponding change in residence of his/her parents (or other persons with whom the student has resided for at least six months prior) is ineligible to participate at the varsity level in any interscholastic athletic contest in a particular sport for a period of one (1) year if as a 9-12 student participated in that sport during the one (1) year period immediately preceding his/her transfer."

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   They cited that because McGee didn't play football during his most recent stay in California but they would have done well to keep reading. By doing so, they would have stumbled across this later in the same paragraph: "For athletic eligibility, a residency is changed when one is abandoned by the immediate family and another residency is established through action and intent."

   Again, there was no applicable residence change by the family.

    • Even a column on a friend's "new media" sports website that has become my favorite source of Section 5 news misfired by contending appeals exist "to account for discrepancies that may be hard to put in writing" and that McGee's case isn't "so different to someone needing to take a leave from school for family or medical reasons."

   That's inaccurate on both counts, particularly regarding the appeals process. Once McGee re-registered at East in May, the facts of his case were in essence frozen in time. Regardless of when the initial application for a transfer waiver arrived on the desk of Section 5 Executive Director Kathy Hoyt, only the circumstances that existed on that day in May mattered. And the previous use of that one-time exception to the transfer rule was fatal in light of the fact that East officials had nothing sufficient available to support a hardship waiver.

   (That the California school McGee attended has been under investigation for possible academic chicanery and several top administrators have been reassigned is interesting but only marginally significant. The team takes a 3-1 record into its game tonight, so by all appearances there is a functional, talented program in place.)

   Short of subsequent revelations of extreme circumstances such as a school being victimized by fraudulent information, the appeals process only addresses the incorrect application of a rule, procedural errors or decisions that are clearly

  
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"contrary to the evidence presented."

    • The radio talk show host I mentioned said Thursday that it's time to hire a lawyer and seek relief in State Supreme Court. My experience in tracking eligibility con- troversies over the years in that such a move would only delay a potential reversal. That's because the courts are reluctant to touch a case that hasn't first exhausted the appeals process of the governing bodies -- the NYSPHSAA and then the New York State Education Department.

   It's arguable that the NYSED is irrelevant since it's specifically the NYSPHSAA transfer rules at the heart of the matter, so that may be one less hurdle. Given that there's an interim commissioner in charge at the moment and that NYSED can move very slowly under the best of circumstances, McGee actually catches a break if he doesn't have to continue his appeal with that office.

   Still, I don't see the three-person NYSPHSAA appeals panel, which can convene on fairly short notice, making the re- quired unanimous finding in McGee's favor. Nor do I see a court justice crushing a rule that no one has succeeded in even chipping away at thus far.

   And then there's this: If McGee won in court, there's always the very real possibility that the NYSPHSAA would pursue an appeal. In a bid to keep provisions of its rulebook intact, the organization has gone down that path is recent instances even when the matter became moot because the season was over.

   In one scenario, the State Supreme Court justice lets McGee play, then the appeals court sides with the NYSPHSAA. It could happen just in time to trigger forfeits and knock East out of the running in a very competitive Section 5 Class A postseason. That nightmare is one more reason that the courts don't like to make waves in high school sports when the rules seem clear.

   Closing thought No. 1: This has been a week locally of people with no experience in high school administration telling us what they think the rule should be without regard to why the membership of the NYSPHSAA adopted the rule. And contrary to how a few other parties have tried to spin it, McGee is not the victim of some sort of double standard. Frankly, I've seen kids with stronger cases sent to the sidelines by transfer rules.

   Believe me, I get it. They see a likeable kid with a potential future as a professional athlete and they want him to succeed. Having said that, I can throw a wet blanket on their enthusiasm thusly:

   Re-read the circumstances of the Seven McGee situation, but substitute Greece or Webster for California. Presto. About half the people -- and I'm pretty sure the number is actually higher -- supporting the restoration of McGee's eligibility for his junior season just changed their minds because now they see the potential implications of disregarding a rule that serves a legitimate purpose.

   Closing thought No. 2: In addressing the Section 5 athletic directors last month, NYSPHSAA Executive Director Robert Zayas said something to the effect that he hoped the transfer rules five years from now are different than what they are at the moment.

   He wasn't suggesting that the current rules are flawed or inadequate. Rather, he was making the point that representatives of the organization's member schools make the state handbook a living, breathing document that has changed from time to time and will keep changing.

   Just this past summer, the NYSPHSAA allowed transfer students who are subject to a one-year wait in order to play at the varsity level to practice with the varsity or compete at the JV or modified levels. It constituted a remarkable about-face from how the vote on a related issue went two years earlier.

   If and when the rules that tripped up McGee are changed, the impetus will come from the member schools that have to deal with transfer issues and not from reporters and producers not at all versed in the rules. I can say with a high degree of confidence, however, that this particular case is not the one that will put the wheels in motion.


  
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