As Glendora High School’s baseball team plays during its pre-season leading up to its March 4 season opener, 18-year-old Nicholas Wagner can only watch in the dug out as his team plays without him.
That’s because the California Interscholastic Federation, governing body for high school sports in the state of California, has denied the high school senior varsity eligibility, a ruling that has embroiled Wagner and his parents in a discrimination lawsuit against CIF.
Wagner’s ability to play baseball his senior year hinges on a March 1 Superior Court decision.
According to Wagner’s parents and their attorney, the Southern Section of CIF refused to accurately weigh evidence during his appeals hearing to grant him a hardship waiver that would allow him to play varsity baseball. They believe CIF officials are discriminating against Wagner because of his emotional disorder called asynchrononous development.
CIF informed Wagner and his parents that Wagner – who maintains a 3.94 G.P.A – did not qualify to play his senior year because he had played more than eight consecutive semesters of high school sports.
The decision was based on the fact that Wagner, who began his high school career at Damien High School as a 13-year-old but repeated his freshman year at Glendora High School, is seeking a fifth year of athletic eligibility. According to CIF rules, players can play only four years of consecutive sports.
A later CIF finding claimed that the decision to repeat Wagner’s freshman year was based on “athletic motivation,” a ruling Wagner’s attorney Chris C. Prussak says doesn’t add up.
“CIF has not presented one iota of evidence to back up their findings,” Prussak said. “They claim ‘a rule is a rule.’ But what about the spirit of the law? To me, this is bullying at its worst.”
Five Years of High School
Wagner began school a year ahead of his peers when district testing determined Wagner qualified to enter Kindergarten just before his fifth birthday. Around his second grade year, Glendora Unified School District identified him as gifted and enrolled him in the Gifted and Talented program. But by the time he hit junior high, Wagner parents said he began to exhibit signs of anxiety and depression.
“He just started to withdraw,” said Wagner’s mother, Shannon Wagner. “He wasn’t socializing, he began biting nails and he was suffering lack of sleep. He wasn’t really nurturing friendships.”
Mrs. Wagner and her husband, Gary, decided to enroll their son at Damien High School, believing that the smaller class sizes would bring their son out of his shell.
But Wagner’s social problems began to get worse. Because of his high test scores, Damien school officials placed Wagner in advanced classes with students 2-3 years older. The age gap proved to be overwhelming for Wagner.
After his first semester at Damien, Wagner’s parents pulled him out of school and home-schooled him during what was supposed to be his second semester.
During his only semester at Damien, Wagner played junior varsity football.
Wagner’s parents discussed the possibility of enrolling their son at Glendora High School with Glendora Unified district officials. According to Wagner’s mother, district officials determined that Wagner was suffering from asynchronous development, a disorder that occurs when a student’s intelligence level progresses much faster than his or her social and emotional development.
Although Wagner’s mother said the disorder was never officially diagnosed by a medical professional, his parents decided to follow the district’s recommendation to waive his first year at Damien and enroll at Glendora High School as a freshman with a clean slate of units.
“The reason for holding him back those years ago had everything to do with his social and emotional well-being,” Mrs. Wagner said. “We couldn’t predict that he would be on the baseball team. We didn’t know. Anything about CIF rules or laws, we only heard of until recently.”
After enrolling at Glendora High School as a freshman, Wagner joined the baseball team, where he was allowed to play for three years until his senior year.
Before Wagner began his fourth and final year of high school baseball, Glendora High officials notified the Wagners they needed to file a waiver under Bylaw 208 for CIF to allow him to play his senior year.
“At the time, there didn’t seem to be much concern,” Mrs. Wagner said. “The district approved everything, we thought everything was Ok.”
CIF rules protect student players from being scouted and recruited at the high school level. Under Bylaw 208, CIF determines circumstances in which “students may transfer from one school to another due to a compelling need or situation beyond a student’s control.”
Under CIF law, hardship must be determined as “unforeseeable, unavoidable and uncorrectable act, condition or event that causes the imposition of a severe and non-athletic burden upon the student or his/her family.”
The Wagners cited their son’s asynchronous development disorder as the reason for Wagner’s transfer and repeating of his freshman year.
In August 2010, CIF notified the Wagners that their request had been denied.
According to the letter written by James T. Staunton, commissioner of athletics, the ruling was based on the finding that Wagner’s parents and Glendora High School decided to “disregard” his credits at Damien, causing him to “fall behind in his school progression.”
Staunton wrote, “There is no evidence of a hardship (as defined by Bylaw 208) existed at the time of his withdrawal from school.”
According to CIF, Wagner’s eight eligible semesters began at Damien. The clock on his high school playing career expired at the end of his junior career.
But Mrs. Wagner believes holding her son back a year did not jeopardize his progression.
“He’s age appropriate with his peers,” said Mrs. Wagner. “He will be graduating with peers his own age.”
The Wagners filed an appeal and presented their case in front of a panel during a hearing in October.
The following month, Glendora High officials notified the Wagners of the decision CIF rendered in their closed-door ruling: CIF rejected their appeal, this time claiming “athletic motivation.”
The latest finding of athletic motivation baffles Wagner and his parents. Glendora High School won its first CIF baseball championship last year, but Wagner’s parents claim baseball was not part of their decision to transfer to Glendora High three years ago.
“Baseball was an afterthought,” Mrs. Wagner said. “Our main concern was our son and his emotional well-being.”
Wagner is 5 foot 6 and weighs 160 pounds. His batting average of .326 ranks 12th out of his 28-member team. His parents say he has not been offered any athletic college scholarships, but several Division III schools have expressed interest.
“I just want to play baseball as long as possible,” said Wagner, who has played the sport since he was 4 years old. “I want to play at college…several schools say they want to come and watch me play, but I don’t know how to respond, because they can’t right now.”
The Wagners' attorney Prussak believes the evidence shows Wagner fits the criteria for hardship.
"No one at CIF is paying attention to the facts or evidence," The Wagners' attorney Prussak said. "No one could present any evidence to convincingly show us why Nicholas does not meet the criteria for hardship or why they believe Nicholas' transfer was athletically motivated."
Lawsuit Against CIF
With time running out on Wagner’s chance to play baseball his final year of high school, the Wagners and their attorney believe their lawsuit is Wagner’s last hope.
The Wagners have an injunction hearing on March 1. A ruling in favor of the Wagners is the only chance Wagner has to play to baseball before his season ends.
“CIF Southern Section counsel has received notice of continued litigation in this case and is presently working on the section's response to it,” CIF said in statement regarding the case. “The CIF Southern Section followed CIF Southern Section By-Laws in rendering its decision in this matter and a CIF State Appeals panel agreed with those findings. We have every confidence a judge reviewing this case will do likewise."
The Wagners and their supporters plan to protest in front of the CIF Southern Section offices in Los Alamitos Tuesday 10 a.m. to 2 p.m.
“Meanwhile, his teammates are playing, he’s not,” Mrs. Wagner said. “It’s overwhelming, it’s frustrating and it’s wrong.”