NJSIAA Reverses Ruling, Grants Eligibility to Brick Kicker with Autism
In a dramatic reversal of a ruling from March, the NJSIAA has declared on Friday that Brick kicker Anthony Starego, who has multi-symptom autism, is immediately eligible to play a fifth season for the Green Dragons this fall, according to a news release by his family.
Starego, 19, is eligible to play in games for the Dragons immediately. The Starego family and the NJSIAA have reached a settlement as to all pending claims in federal and state court, according to the family.
On Friday afternoon, only hours before Brick's game against Toms River South, NJSIAA attorney Steven Goodell contacted the Starego's attorney saying that after consultation with the remaining teams that Brick plays this season, the NJSIAA had reconsidered its earlier ruling and that Starego would be permitted to play out the remaining eight games of this season.
"We have nothing but our profound thanks for the Association,'' Anthony's father, Ray Starego, said about the NJSIAA's decision. "Anthony, who loves the game of football and being a valued and respected member of the team, gets to play. Nothing could be more important."
“Anthony is a special young man with exceptional skills and presents a unique set of circumstances,” NJSIAA executive director Steve Timko said in a statement. “The federal court clearly established that there's been no violation of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), so the NJSIAA is under no obligation to provide him with additional playing time. In addition, our eight-semester and age 19 rules remain firmly in place. But, given the double digit increase in statewide classification rates, the association needs to address the needs of our student athletes and their families.”
According to Goodell, once the federal court definitively affirmed the association's position regarding the ADA, it seemed appropriate to resolve the matter promptly, without
excessive, additional debate. And, reaching this solution now allows all parties to avoid additional litigation related to potential appeals.
"We're a member-driven organization, so before making any decision, we decided to consult with those member schools who are Brick's football opponents," Timko said. "And without exception, they were agreeable to letting Anthony take the field."
Ray Starego told Shore Sports Network Thursday night that his family was willing to push the legal process all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court if necessary, which means the NJSIAA could have faced an expensive legal bill had the dispute drawn out over months and possibly years.
"This is about more than just Anthony getting to play,'' Starego said. "It's about giving the younger kids behind him and their families who face similar circumstances the hope that their situation could be made better."
"The outcome of the litigation shows that 'winning”'does not have to entail humiliating or destroying your adversary,'' the Staregos' attorney, Gary Mayerson, said in a statement. "Here, all of the parties (and the court) can take credit for working together to achieve a noble and uplifting result. "
He had previously been denied by the NJSIAA for a fifth year of eligibility due to a ruling in march. Starego's parents, Ray and Reylene, filed a federal lawsuit in April against the NJSIAA and the State Department of Education claiming that the NJSIAA's rulings violated Anthony's rights under the Americans with Disabilities Act. On Sept. 10, a federal court ruling later denied the family's motion for a preliminary injunction that would have allowed Anthony to play for the Green Dragons from the beginning this season. On Sept. 11, the Staregos' attorney, Gary Mayerson, filed an appeal of that ruling.
In her 29-page opinion issued to deny the injunction, U.S. District Judge Freda L. Wilson wrote that "plaintiffs have failed to show that the Association’s decision denying Anthony a waiver violates the ADA. Indeed, the Court’s focus is on whether Anthony was provided with equal access and opportunity to play football afforded to every other student without a disability. That is the very essence of the ADA. And, I find that he was given such access and opportunity.”
In March, the NJSIAA eligibility appeals committee initially denied Anthony's attempt for a fifth year on the grounds of its eight-consecutive-semester and age-restriction rules that are in place to prevent competitive advantage. Athletes are not eligible if they turn 19 years old before their senior season begins, and Anthony turned in 19 in June and had already played four seasons of football. However, he functions like a fifth-grader academically because of his autism, and his father said he will be attending Brick until he is 21 years old under a special program that is protected by federal law.
In her opinion, Wolfson indicated that if the case were more about the NJSIAA's reasoning for denying the fifth year rather than a violation of the ADA, she may have ruled differently.
“If this case were brought as an appeal of the Association’s decision – which it is not – limited to the issue whether the waiver was properly denied under the Association’s rules governing eligibility, as opposed to an ADA discrimination case, the result might be different,” Wolfson wrote.
In July, State Department of Education Commissioner Christopher Cerf upheld the NJSIAA ruling from March, denying Anthony a waiver to play this season.
Anthony became a national sensation after his feat against Toms River North last season, appearing on NBC's Today Show and in a segment on ESPN. He played freshman and jayvee football for three years before becoming the starting kicker midway through last season and making an immediate impact. He also booted a 33-yard field goal in a 6-3 loss to Lacey.
This year, he practiced with Brick during the preseason this summer and was allowed to kick in scrimmages, so his last live action came in the Green Dragons' final scrimmage. He has remained with the team during its 1-1 start, cheering from the sidelines and bringing water to his teammates. He was still is allowed to practice, but has only received limited reps, according to his father. Current Brick starting kicker Steve Ferlisi is 2-for-3 on extra points this season and missed two field goals last week in a 28-7 loss to Middletown South.