How High School Eligibility Rules Spiked Todd Hunt's Football Dreams
Todd Hunt needed to get out of Norwalk, Connecticut.
His 17-year-old brother, Tykwan, was stabbed to death on Jan. 11, 2008. Tykwan’s 16-year-old accused killer claimed self-defense and spent 16 months in jail awaiting trial before a jury acquitted him. Months later he was shot in the head and killed, making Hunt a “prime target for retaliation,” according to his lawyer.
Hunt wanted to make a fresh start. The first-team All-Fairfield County running back at Harding High School, headed west in the summer of 2010. He moved in with the family of childhood friend Max Wittek and enrolled at Mater Dei High School in Santa Ana, Calif.
Hunt, a promising college football prospect, left a 0-10 team to play for one of the most powerful high school programs in the nation. His pal, Wittek, the team’s starting quarterback, would end up playing for USC.
The circumstances surrounding Hunt’s move west raised a big red flag for James Staunton, then-commissioner of the California Interscholastic Federation’s (CIF) Southern Section, the governing body for high school sports in much of Southern California. Staunton ruled Hunt ineligible to play varsity football for Mater Dei for the 2010 season, citing CIF’s new, stricter transfer rules in deeming Hunt’s relocation to be “athletically motivated.”
Staunton’s ruling set off a series of appeals and lawsuits all aimed at rescinding a 2009 CIF bylaw that bars student-athletes from transferring to schools for “athletically motivated” reasons. On Thursday, a CIF council committee will consider a request from the Trinity League, made up of six large private schools in Orange County, that the “athletically motivated” clause be deleted from the rulebook.
Hunt did not get shut out of the entire season. A CIF appeals board heard his case midway through the season and overturned Staunton’s ruling. He ended up playing in nine games of Mater Dei’s 13-game season in 2010. But the rule that barred him remains.
“Once they heard me speak and everyone saw how genuine the reason was, they saw I didn’t transfer just to play football,” Hunt said. “They changed their minds and let me play.”
The new bylaws were deemed necessary because more and more students have been switching schools for non-academic reasons, forcing CIF and its members schools to enact stricter rules (including the added language about “athletic motivation”) to prevent sports-based recruiting at the high school level. As a result, transfer hardship petitions, which enable a student-athlete to be eligible without his family changing residences, have risen 40 percent in the Southern Section over the last three years, from 350 petitions in the 2007-2008 school year, to 490 in 2010-2011.
But “athletic motivation” has no clear definition in the CIF rule book, which leads to inconsistent application of the rule.“That’s where some of the controversy comes from,” said Stuart Reeder, a chairperson on CIF hardship appeals panels. “It comes from the fact that the rule and the definition is hazy and it appears that it’s being applied differently in similar situations.”
In response, Mater Dei is leading the charge to have the “athletic motivation” language removed from the bylaws. The Roman Catholic Bishop of Orange County, which operates the school, is also suing the CIF Southern Section on behalf of Mater Dei.
Mater Dei’s athletic success and its reliance on transfers from other schools (it leads the Southern Section in both transfers in and out of the school) have made other coaches and athletic directors wary of Mater Dei’s motivation for seeking the rule change.
“What some people have in their craw a little bit is who it’s coming from. Not necessarily that the idea is bad,” said CIF-SS assistant commissioner Scott Raftery.
Schools like Mater Dei are not the only cause for the chaos caused by excessive transfers. Parents of high school athletes, often seeking future monetary gain for themselves and their children via college scholarships and professional contracts, deserve a good deal of the blame for the transfer chaos. “99.9 percent of the time it’s the adults that are making the poor decisions and the kid is the one that is affected,” Raftery said.
“It’s become like a runaway train,” Reeder added. “Since I started serving in 2002, it’s at least doubled or tripled in the number of requests we have for hardships. That’s the most interesting question about the why. Why is this happening? Why over the last 10 years has this transfer thing just exploded?”
Hunt’s journey through the red tape of CIF bylaws shows the great deal of confusion surrounding high school transfer rules in Southern California prep sports. Overzealous parents, poorly written bylaws and competition for college scholarships have all contributed to a growing problem—a problem threatening to take the fun out of high school sports.
Wittek’s Free Ride
Unlike Hunt’s switch to Mater Dei, Max Wittek’s transfer in the fall of 2008 went off without a hitch.
Wittek was born in California but grew up with his mother in Norwalk, Conn. He spent kindergarten through ninth grade on the East Coast and developed a reputation as a talented quarterback during middle school. He met Hunt on a fifth grade football team and the two became close friends.
“We were going to the same middle school and we had a bunch of classes together so we just naturally started hanging out more,” Wittek said. “He came over on weekends—basically lived at my house on weekends and then obviously when we moved out, he was kind of sad.”
However, the friends were separated when Wittek moved to Newport Beach after ninth grade to live with his father. He enrolled at Mater Dei as a sophomore, the beneficiary of a rule that allows student-athletes one free transfer without a family move before the start of the sophomore year.
Wittek’s transfer came one year before the “athletically motivated” language appeared in CIF rulebooks, a rule that supersedes the clause allowing one free transfer before the student’s sophomore year. Had Wittek’s transfer occurred after the 2009 bylaw changes, the motivation of his transfer would have been questioned.
“I felt that my surroundings in Connecticut weren’t giving me the best opportunity,” Wittek said. “We started looking into a few places and me and (former Mater Dei and current USC quarterback) Matt Barkley shared the same quarterback coach. We started looking into things like that and you know, no matter who we talked to, Mater Dei just kept being the number one highly recommended place, especially for quarterbacks.”
Transfers similar to Wittek’s prompted the addition of “athletically motivated” to CIF’s state Blue Book, the organization’s constitution of bylaws, before the 2009-2010 school year. But the clause is not specific enough to settle the problem.
“What is the definition of athletic motivation? There isn’t one,” Raftery said. “It’s just what we see. Kids talking about I’m going to go here because it’s a better program, I get better coaching over here, my personal instructor told me, whatever it may be. So that’s still in the works but people are not getting too good of a grip on what that athletic motivation means.”
After several of its incoming transfers were deemed ineligible by CIF, Mater Dei grew so frustrated with the governing body’s new rules that it pursued legal action. As a result, the Roman Catholic Bishop of Orange County filed a lawsuit on Mater Dei’s behalf against the CIF-Southern Section and 16 members of its executive committee in September 2010.
In the lawsuit, Mater Dei doesn’t target the reversal of any of CIF’s decisions on specific athletes. Instead, it seeks to remove the “athletically motivated” rule, which it feels CIF has used to unfairly punish the school.
The lawsuit is significant as Mater Dei is not a typical school. With the largest student population of any private school west of Chicago and an athletic program that has won 60 national, state and CIF titles, Mater Dei is a major power player in Southern California high school athletics.
Lawyers for the school wrote in a document submitted to the court: “Armed with the vague, undefined and malleable ‘athletically motivated transfer’ bylaw, the commissioner repeatedly denied athletic eligibility to students who transferred to Mater Dei, deeming the transfers ‘athletically motivated’ in spite of compelling evidence to the contrary.”
They went on to state that “this unfair and unreasonable course of conduct by CIF-SS was neither accidental nor coincidental. Rather, it was the product of an intentional effort to injure, discriminate against, punish and harm Mater Dei. The undefined and unlimited nature of the bylaws, in the hands of a commissioner who was unafraid to demonstrate and act upon a clear bias against Mater Dei, resulted in an unfair, unpredictable and unreasonable process that caused great harm to Mater Dei.”
Several attempts at a negotiated settlement have failed, and a jury trial is scheduled to begin on Feb. 27 in Santa Ana.
The case may be dropped before the trial date if the Trinity League succeeds in getting the CIF council to drop the rule at its Thursday meeting. This is significant because the high schools themselves–not the CIF office—have the authority to write and amend the organization’s bylaws. The Southern Section’s 581 schools are divided into 86 leagues, and each league, along with several allied organizations representing coaches and administrators, receive one vote.
If the Trinity League’s proposal passes with a simple majority, the measure will move to the CIF state council. Each of the state’s 10 sections is allocated votes based on its size, and with 32 votes, the Southern Section is by far the state’s largest voting bloc.
“If our schools want to do that, that’s great,” Raftery said about the Trinity League’s proposal. “I brought it to my athletic administrators and they were animated about who was bringing this forward, rather than what the bylaw had. Once they actually sat and digested what was there and we discussed it for quite some time, they said, ‘You know, this has some merit. This is something we’re really looking at and really considering.’”
Lost in Translation
Danilo Dragovic, like his brother and cousin before him, came to the United States to play basketball.
Dragovic left his native Serbia at age 16 and came to California, enrolling as a junior at Santa Barbara’s San Marcos High School.
The 6-foot-5 Dragovic was initially ineligible to play varsity basketball at San Marcos because of his exchange student status, so he played for the Junior Varsity and averaged more than 23 points per game. However, Dragovic was forced to leave San Marcos for his senior year because his visa would only allow him to spend one year at a public school.
After consulting with his family back home in Belgrade, Dragovic decided to transfer to Harvard-Westlake in North Hollywood, a school whose basketball program was coming off of a 25-6, league-championship season.
CIF denied Dragovic’s transfer waiver in October of 2010, ruling that because his entire family didn’t move and because he played basketball at San Marcos the previous season rather than sitting out, he was ineligible to play basketball for Harvard-Westlake.
“That was beyond disappointment,” Dragovic said. “I was never aware of that [rule] coming as a foreign student here. I had a host family that I was living with, and we tried to figure it all out, but neither me, nor my host family, nor the athletic director at San Marcos High School, knew about these rules. CIF was kind of determined to prevent me from playing for some reason. I don’t think it was fair.”
Dragovic’s appeal to the state CIF panel was rejected and he took his case to Los Angeles Superior Court, seeking an injunction that would have allowed him to play immediately for Harvard-Westlake.
“It was going to be a long process,” Dragovic said, explaining why he eventually dropped the case. “It would take six years to get to the Supreme Court to gain my eligibility. By that time I would be out of college and playing who knows where.”
Dragovic has strong basketball bloodlines. His brother Nikola played four seasons at UCLA (2006 – 2010) averaging nearly eight points per game over his career. His cousin, Nikola Vucevic, was an even bigger star. In his junior year (2010 – 2011), he excelled at forward for USC, earning first team All-Pac-10 honors. This performance led to his selection as the 16th overall pick in the 2011 NBA Draft by the Philadelphia 76ers following that season.
Both Vucevic and Nikola Dragovic earned full-ride college basketball scholarships. Due largely to his lack of varsity high school experience, Danilo Dragovic wasn’t offered any major Divison-1 scholarships, and ended up joining the USC team as a walk-on.
“He came up to us and we said we would take him as a member of the team but we had no background on him at all,” said USC basketball coach Kevin O’Neill. “We hadn’t seen him play; we hadn’t seen him do anything because he was ineligible for the whole time he was here in the States.”
O’Neill, who has coached for 32 years at the college and NBA levels, said things could have been different for Dragovic had he been able to play his senior season.
“I would have thought he for sure would have gotten a low to mid-major scholarship,” O’Neill said. “He would have benefitted greatly by being a guy that would have had some time on the court in high school. So he’s behind a little bit. He really is. It’s unfortunate because the kid’s a great kid, he’s a really hard worker and he’s a great teammate.”
Despite having to pay full tuition at USC and, so far, having only logged one minute of game time this year, Dragovic is thankful for the chance to follow in his family's footsteps and play college basketball.
“It’s kind of a blessing that it all came together and that coach Kevin O’Neill gave me this opportunity,” Dragovic said. “It definitely affected [my recruiting] by a lot. I probably wasn’t getting the looks that I maybe would have been getting. I kind of had 16 colleges looking at me but then at the end of the day, all I wanted to do is play for the Trojans and I was just ready to do anything to be here and be part of the program.”
Rash of Damaging Transfers
O’Neill spends a good portion of his time around high school athletes, evaluating and recruiting some of the top basketball players in the country to play at USC. He said he’s noticed a lack of commitment and perseverance by student-athletes in recent years, resulting in a spike in high school transfers.
“It happens all the time. It’s just like college,” O’Neill said. “As soon as people don’t get instant gratification, they move on. Or if the coach says something to them that they don’t like, they move on. There’s not really a lot of stick-to-itiveness with kids anymore. There’s not really a lot of sucking it up.”
Raftery and Reeder said that more often than not, it’s the athlete’s parents that are pushing their children to transfer schools for better opportunities.
“To me, that’s almost the most disturbing part of this whole issue,” said Reeder, who worked as a principal and teacher for 38 years. “Why is that we have so many families who think that by transferring from school A to school B that things are going to be better for their student? It’s not a good learning situation to pull a kid out of a school that he’s been going to for two or three years and then start a new school. That’s a tough situation academically, and that bothers me that we would have so many families who are willing to take a kid out of a school academically and send them to another school.”
Reeder said that increases in playing time and visibility in front of college recruiters are the two most common reasons that high school athletes transfer. He believes that many of these moves are actually counter-productive.
“What are the chances that they’re going to get a scholarship to go to college? Very, very few kids get those,” Reeder said. “I think we have an awful lot of parents out there that are misleading themselves, thinking that by changing schools, my kid is going to be in that position where he is going to get a scholarship or he is going to become a pro athlete.”
Raftery says that CIF works to get as many student-athletes eligible as possible, rather than look for reasons to deny hardship waivers.
“It’s the part that frustrates us here,” Raftery said. “People think we’re the big bad CIF and we just don’t allow kids to play. The kid doesn’t get to play because of decisions adults made, either parents making bad decisions or schools going out and dragging somebody in, whatever it may be. Every ‘no’ that we have to give, we know that a kid is getting hurt.”
Raftery acknowledges that some parents have valid cases for hardships, but many others are looking to game the system. “There’s also those that you know are just trying to pull the wool over your eyes,” he said. “They are trying to get some excuse. Like I get calls from parents, ‘I want to transfer my son—I want to take him to another school. What do I have to do to get a hardship?’ It’s not what can you do to get a hardship, but what the hardship condition is that’s forcing you to have to leave,” he said.
Hunt Regains His Future
Following his transfer from Harding High School in Connecticut, Todd Hunt was forced to sit out the first four games of Mater Dei’s 2010 football season after his case was deemed “athletically motivated.”
He filed a lawsuit against the Southern Section in addition to his appeal to the CIF hardship panel.
“I prepared for the games like I was going to play,” Hunt said. “I would go to practice and then on the last day (before each game) my coach would tell me whether I was playing or not.”
In the lawsuit, Hunt claimed his life-threatening situation in Connecticut necessitated a move away from the area. Hunt’s lawyer wrote that “playing football at Mater Dei in his final year in more than half of the season’s games will likely be critical to this student-athlete’s chances of obtaining a college scholarship, and maybe even a professional career.”
CIF countered by stating in a letter to the court that “State CIF Bylaw 208 advises that educational choice and social adjustment problems are not considered hardships…The student is living with the first-string quarterback at his new school, further supporting an athletic motivation. While the student may have improved his living situation, this request does not meet the requirements of a hardship…Participation in high school athletics is a privilege, not a right or entitlement.”
With Hunt on the sidelines, Mater Dei started the season 2-2, suffering a 44-13 blowout loss to Corona Centennial in the second week.
“It was tough on me just watching him stand on the sideline because I know how bad he wanted to be out there,” Wittek said. “He has that desire to be a great player and I felt bad for him. I can only imagine how he felt about the situation.”
And it wasn’t only the game that Hunt missed. “It was hard. Football was like my sanctuary,” he said. “Anything that went on, it doesn’t really matter when I’m playing football, whether I’m practicing or playing in a game.”
On Oct. 6, 2010, less than a week before his case’s scheduled hearing date at an Orange County courthouse, Hunt was ruled eligible by a CIF hardship appeals panel.
“I think it was a two-thirds vote that they had to take and it usually takes two days and they just voted right on the spot,” Hunt said.
He made his debut for Mater Dei three days later, playing on the defensive line and recording three tackles in the Monarchs’ 48-0 win over Gardena.
Despite playing in only nine of the team’s 13 games, Hunt led Mater Dei with eight sacks on the season. The Monarchs finished the year with an 8-5 record (6-3 with Hunt) and made it to the CIF semifinals for the first time since 2005.
Still, Hunt didn’t receive a scholarship offer from a Division I program until June—extremely late by college recruiting standards. He snapped up the offer from Fresno State and completed his freshman season as a backup defensive lineman for the Bulldogs.
He’s studying business management but still dreams of one day playing in the NFL.
“I’m not at a big time school like Max but we still are Division I and we are competing with big time guys,” Hunt said. “I’m not going to say it was my dream school but I’m happy here. There’s no telling what could have happened. I’m not sure. I would have liked to have had more [college] choices but I’ll take whatever I can get. Beggars can’t be choosers.”
He tries hard to avoid thinking about the violence that forced him to leave Connecticut. Hunt’s mother also left three months ago and headed to South Carolina to live with family. Hunt said he speaks to his mom by phone every day and visited her on his last school break.
“Now it’s the past so I don’t really think about it,” Hunt said. “It felt surreal—I don’t really remember. I just tried hard to forget about it. I put that in the past and look forward to good things.”