Attorneys for the San Dieguito High School football players who are accused of assault with a deadly weapon said Wednesday they will seek court permission to let their clients play football while standing trial--a move opposed by the district attorney and the victims of the alleged attacks.
The players' parents say the ban on playing football is unfair, but prosecutors say football players should receive no special privileges.
Defense attorneys, backed by the San Dieguito football coach, want their clients ready to play in the Mustangs' opening game, Sept. 11 against Granite Hills High School of El Cajon.
"I can't imagine that the court will not consider athletics one of those healthy activities that are a good thing," said attorney Lloyd Charton, representing a 17-year-old star linebacker.
"My client vigorously denies these charges," Charton said. "What if he goes to trial and is found innocent? To have lost his senior year of football while waiting to prove his innocence would be greatly unjust."
Until a court order banned him from practicing with the team, the linebacker was considered a good candidate to win a football scholarship for college.
Is Football at Fault?
In all, seven athletes from San Dieguito High have been charged in three alleged gang-like attacks. The case has raised questions about whether football contributes to violence and has cast a pall over the upcoming season.
As part of releasing several of the athletes from Juvenile Hall, Judge Pro Tem Laura Berend in mid-July put them on "home supervision." They can leave the house only to attend school or go to work or when accompanied by their parents, and athletics were expressly banned.
In a brief hearing Wednesday in Juvenile Court for three defendants, Judge Gilbert Smith delayed a formal pretrial hearing until Sept. 14. The trial will probably begin two to three weeks later, Smith said.
The issue of playing football was not discussed at Wednesday's hearing, but defense attorneys said later they plan to seek a special hearing before the pretrial session, and before the opening game, to get the ban lifted.
"Clearly, athletics are a school activity, and a stabilizing influence," said attorney Hideo Chino, representing a 17-year-old running back.
But the victims say that athletics is anything but a stabilizing influence on the defendants. To them, letting the defendants back on the playing field increases the danger to the public.
'It's just a gut feeling," said Tom Gabel, 46, a salesman in the nuclear medicine field, "but I keep thinking there must be a connection, however small, between the coaching tactics and attitudes and the way the players attacked us." The youths are accused of attacking the Gabel family in the driveway of their Leucadia home on the night of June 25.
"I think it's ridiculous that they could be allowed to play football after what they've done," said Jason Traeger, 19, Gabel's stepson. "Football is the binding factor between them all that serves as a catalyst for this behavior. To let them join the team would just spur more of this.
"It would defeat the purpose of the whole court proceeding," he said.
Linda Miller, a spokeswoman for the district attorney, said prosecutors will oppose any attempt to let the defendants play football.
She said that the home supervision restrictions are similar to those given to other juvenile defendants facing charges of assault with a deadly weapon. Football players are no different, she said.
"We don't think these teen-agers should be given any special treatment," Miller said. "They are being treated exactly like teen-agers in other home supervision cases. The fact is that the defendants are football players, and we don't think it's a good idea for them to again rejoin the team."
Football coach Ed Burke, who attended Wednesday's hearing along with several of the defendants' teammates, has dismissed any connection between sports and the incidents.
"These are incidents that occured out in the community and have no relationship with athletics, and did not occur at athletic events or athletic-sponsored events," Burke said. "Nothing positive in football comes from fighting."
Burke, entering his third year as San Dieguito coach, said the criminal charges have hurt the team because of an unfair linkage with the school.
Gloom Over Sunshine
He stands to lose three starters from his squad and possibly a chance at dethroning perennial champ Vista High School and last year's surprise Fallbrook High School. The team is undergoing weight training and light scrimmages, with the first heavy-hitting practice scheduled for Aug. 24.
"It's been like a gloom over our sunshine," Burke said. "We're not as carefree as before. The team has its feelings hurt."
The defendants' parents find the football ban punishment even before guilt or innocence is established.