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California school sues governing body over eligibility rulings

Cameron Smith
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A California high school with one of the state's proudest athletic traditions has filed suit against the California Interscholastic Federation Southern Section, citing discrimination by the governing body towards two transfer candidates who play different sports at the school.

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According to the Los Angeles Times, a lawsuit filed by the Roman Catholic Diocese of Orange focuses on the CIF's declaration that two athletes who transferred to Mater Dei (Calif.) High School for the current year have been declared ineligible. One of the athletes in question is linebacker/defensive lineman Todd Hunt, who transferred to the school from a high school in Connecticut and is seeking a hardship waiver to avoid violation with CIF transfer regulations. Hunt's appeal hearing was to be held Wednesday.

Expected to make an impact on the defensive line or at linebacker for Mater Dei, Hunt left his hometown of Norwalk, Conn., after his brother was stabbed to death. According to the Times' Eric Sondheimer, the senior left in the interest of his own safety, moving in with Mater Dei quarterback Max Wittek, whom he knew in Connecticut. Police investigating his brother's murder have even written in Hunt's defense, claiming that his life could be in jeopardy if he returns to Norwalk.

The other athlete in question is a water polo player who transferred to the school from Newport Harbor (Calif.) High. There is currently no specific appeal date for his case to be heard.

"Mater Dei has been a member of the CIF-SS for nearly 60 years and has complied fully with all obligations required of it as a member school," Roman Catholic Diocese of Orange spokesman Ryan Lilyengren told the L.A. Times in a written statement. "This legal action does not seek any award of monetary damages but a resolution that will bring an end to the unfair and unjust treatment of Mater Dei and its student-athletes."

What Lilyengren's suit is seeking is a second look at how CIF's own rules and regulations fit in with the two Mater Dei cases the school disagrees with, as well as concurrent attorney fees that will be racked up in the course of the ongoing suit.

Meanwhile, the Times' Eric Sondheimer wrote that Mater Dei could find itself in trouble if the suit ever goes to court, since public schools have long been skeptical of Mater Dei's benevolent innocence in receiving top athletes.

Here's what Sondheimer wrote about Mater Dei's precarious balance in launching the current suit:

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.

Interestingly, this isn't the first lawsuit that the Roman Catholic Diocese of Orange has filed against the CIF in 2010. The diocese also filed an injunction against the CIF to bar the CIF Southern Section from disclosing punishment that was self-imposed by Santa Margarita High School after it admitted violating CIF rules governing recruiting of student athletes during a March 2010 open house. The judge in that case sided with the Roman Catholic Diocese, blocking a public records request by the L.A. Times.

While the two cases are unrelated, they provide interesting insight into the willingness of one powerful California body to sue another. While the claims in the current suit would break through strict transfer guidelines that have had a major impact in California high school sports, the Diocese's previous success may have made it bullish over a positive outcome for Hunt and his fellow hopeful Monarch.

The current elibility case is a complicated one, and it's hard not to feel sympathy for Hunt. At the same time, it's easy to see why the CIF would feel a need to send a coded message to Mater Dei, telling the school it won't have future transfer cases go its way so simply. It may be unfair to have two athletes caught in the crosshairs of that broader fight, but it also might set an important precendent in the process.

Either way, where the case goes from here is out of the hands of both Mater Dei and the CIF, barring a surprising reconciliation. The suit has been filed, and in all likelihood it will be decided in a courtroom. The only question is whether the two athletes in question will get any kind of resolution in time to continue their athletic careers this season.

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