Noah Britton, who is autistic, will not be allowed to play football next year because he has already completed 8 semesters of high school.
Angeli Wright, email@example.com
ASHEVILLE – The chants of “put Noah in” echoed across Asheville High’s Memorial Stadium during the fourth quarter of a blowout football win last season against Enka.
Noah Britton, 18, stood on the sideline hoping for a chance to enter the game. Autism had kept him off the field before, but he was ready to show he could play.
Coach David Burdette walked over to Britton and whispered instructions into his ear, then slapped the back of his No. 70 jersey. Britton ran to the huddle behind wild cheers from the student-section. His mother, Cheri Honeycutt, sobbed in the stands.
“I’ve never seen that kid so happy,” Honeycutt said.
A plan to play in 2018
Britton only played a handful of snaps that night, and for the rest of the season. He planned to return to the team this upcoming season as he continues his education at Asheville High through the Exceptional Children’s Program, which special needs students can access until they turn 21.
But last week, the North Carolina High School Athletic Association denied his appeal to extend his athletic eligibility under its ‘eight semester rule,’ which does not allow students to participate in high school sports past four years of enrollment. Britton joined the football program as a sophomore, but enrolled as a freshman.
It’s a decision Honeycutt plans to fight.
“It’s lazy is what that is,” she said. “It’s lazy because it’s a rule that only serves the kids at the top of the bell curve. This is a rule trying to stop a star athlete from playing another year, not for a kid like Noah. What I’m looking for is some common sense from the NCHSAA, and I’m not getting it.”
Should the IEP extend to sports?
Honeycutt argues that the Individualized Education Plan that Britton follows at school – a modified education plan for special needs students — should extend to athletics.
“The education system is federally mandated to have individual education plans for kids with challenges and disabilities, why not also in athletics?”
Honeycutt said she plans to put pressure on the NCHSAA for its ruling, starting several social media and letter-writing campaigns. She has yet to get a response from the state’s high school athletic governing body.
“I’ve got nothing but silence,” she said.
Burdette said he has had no choice but to accept the NCHSAA’s ruling. If he plays Britton in any game next season, he would be forced to forfeit any wins.
Where Burdette’s confusion lies is in the NCHSAA’s appeal process and the lack of clarity from its rulings.
“If this situation is not appealable, then what is?” Burdette said. “I’ve been playing devil’s advocate and trying to understand the state’s ruling, but it’s hard when the only response is a blanket statement. It feels like, if you’re not going to actually consider different circumstances, then don’t make it appear like you will.”
NCHSAA commissioner Que Tucker said the appeal process is in place for different circumstances than Noah’s. Eight semester rule appeals, she said, are normally approved for athletes who miss enough school for personal reasons to have to make up a semester.
“Noah, unfortunately, did not fit that category,” Tucker said. “I know it’s a raw subject right now, but the problem here is, when you try and start dealing with these issues case-by-case, that’s when you get in trouble. If we make an arbitrary decision to allow a kid with special needs to play, even after he’s had an opportunity, it opens the door for others to think we are discriminating against them.”
There is however, precedent to amend the “eight semester rule.”
There is precedent in another state
In 2013, the New Jersey Interscholastic Athletic Association (NJSIAA) waived its eligibility rules to allow an autistic student with an Individualized Education Program to remain a starting player on his high school football team for a fifth season.
Tucker said the NCHSAA board would consider a change in the rule if it was proposed by a member school.
“The board will always try and err on fair and equitable for all,” Tucker said.
Even if Britton’s eligibility is not reinstated, Burdette said he still plans to have him at practice and wearing a jersey on the sideline on Friday nights. He won’t, however, be able to be in pads and participate in most drills.
“I’ve made it this far,” Britton said. “I don’t know why I can’t go on.”
Honeycutt said Britton has been able to accept and process the likelihood of not being on the roster next year.
“He’s already found a way to be OK with this in his head and his heart,” Honeycutt said. “And you know where he learned how to do that? Working in athletics. Isn’t that ironic? He learned how to win and lose standing on that field.”
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