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Mater Dei claims of CIF Southern Section bias viewed with skepticism

ERIC SONDHEIMER / ON HIGH SCHOOLS

A civil suit claims CIF engages in 'arbitrary and discriminatory actions' involving eligibility of student athletes trying to transfer to school. But finding sympathy is going to be difficult.

October 04, 2010|Eric Sondheimer

Forgive me for laughing, but that was my first reaction to seeing the allegations made by attorneys for Santa Ana Mater Dei and the Roman Catholic Diocese of Orange against the CIF Southern Section in a civil suit filed last Wednesday in Santa Ana Superior Court.

If it ever goes to court, the plaintiffs had better make sure they reserve plenty of peremptory challenges for the parents of public school athletes in the jury pool, because they're going to be as skeptical as I am.

Mater Dei is mad because Southern Section Commissioner Jim Staunton had the audacity to declare ineligible two top athletes who had transferred in -- a water polo player and a football player. The suit claims the Southern Section "has consistently, intentionally and systematically engaged in arbitrary and discriminatory actions against Mater Dei by issuing and enforcing unsupported and erroneous findings and rulings relating to eligibility of student athletes at Mater Dei."

The suit also states: "These wrongful actions by CIF-SS were neither accidental nor coincidental. Rather, they were the product of a concerted and intentional effort to injure, discriminate against, punish and harm Mater Dei through unfair and inconsistent application of the CIF-SS bylaws, rules and regulations."

Finding sympathy for Mater Dei is going to be difficult.

Opposing coaches have been complaining for years about the Southern Section's lack of interest, or more bluntly, failure to act, when Mater Dei suddenly gets a top transfer student.

If the Southern Section really is engaged in a "concerted and intentional effort" to punish and harm Mater Dei, how does that explain all the basketball transfers in recent years who have suddenly shown up and played for the Monarchs with no intervention by the Southern Section?

People still don't understand how Keala King could leave Compton Dominguez and play for Mater Dei last season while he had siblings attending Long Beach Poly. Yet the Southern Section gave its approval.

And the Southern Section has used Mater Dei to host championship playoff events because of the school's outstanding facilities, so there doesn't appear to be a vendetta against the Monarchs.

What this suit is really about is trying to intimidate, influence and perhaps preempt the Southern Section from a crackdown on athletes transferring for sports reasons.

One of the athletes involved, Todd Hunt, a transfer from a school in Connecticut, has a CIF appeal hearing scheduled for Tuesday. He has been seeking a hardship waiver of transfer rules, and his story is sad and compelling. He had a brother stabbed to death. The police chief in his hometown of Norwalk, Conn., has written a letter indicating that Hunt's life could be in jeopardy if he returned to the area.

That's a clear hardship to me. But Hunt moved in with the family of Mater Dei quarterback Max Wittek, who he knew in Connecticut, and I assume Staunton decided it was an athletically motivated decision.

Hunt got a lawyer, and in another court case scheduled for next week, he'll be seeking a temporary restraining order to gain eligibility if his appeal fails.

Yes, there's confusion why players at one school are declared eligible and players at another school are not. But Mater Dei is claiming the Southern Section is "biased" in its application of rules pertaining to Mater Dei. That argument is ridiculous.

If Mater Dei wants to challenge whether it's constitutional for the CIF to deny eligibility because a student transferred for athletic reasons, bring it on. That's a legitimate, worthy debate. But the suit filed last week is pure fantasy.

This looks like the continuation of a mini-rebellion by Catholic schools, supported by the diocese, designed to challenge Staunton's power and authority. In July, Santa Margarita won a temporary restraining order against the Southern Section barring the release of information about a rules violation.

The diocese apparently has plenty of money to spend on lawyers, and who knows what a judge or jury is going to decide. But for people who have followed high school sports in Southern California for years, this suit would make for great reading … at a comedy club.

eric.sondheimer@latimes.com

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