The appeal hearing before the University Interscholastic League’s state executive committee last October—in testimony at times emotional, contradictory, and contentious—was wrapping up late.
The committee, which decides eligibility appeals for the roughly 826,000 Texas high-school athletes participating under the UIL’s umbrella, had scheduled 45 minutes, but this Zoom call had gone on for almost an hour. Three weeks earlier, Hughes Springs High School had challenged the eligibility of football player Trayvon Kennedy’s move from its campus in northeast Texas to Daingerfield High, about six miles away in another UIL district. In response, the district executive committee for Daingerfield ruled that Kennedy had transferred for athletic purposes and, in accordance with UIL rules, would be barred from playing varsity sports for a period of one year.
Kennedy appealed to the statewide committee, where he insisted he hadn’t changed schools for football. “I don’t play football to win,” the eighteen-year-old said, breaking down in tears. Kennedy explained that he’d been forced to move out of his mother’s home after his stepfather contracted COVID-19 and lost his job; the teenager was now living with his father in Daingerfield’s attendance zone. The panel also questioned Hughes Springs coach Chris Edwards, who said Kennedy—who was chosen as his new district’s preseason offensive MVP by Dave Campbell’s Texas Football magazine—had openly complained about playing time not long before transferring to Daingerfield.
After all sides had been heard, Mike Motheral, the state committee’s longtime chair, called for a vote: “All in favor of granting the appeal …” Five of the body’s nine members were present that day, average for a hearing. Two of them raised their hands, which meant the three other votes would deny the appeal. Kennedy lowered his head and said nothing more.
Committee members don’t have to explain their votes, leaving participants and observers to reach their own conclusions. In this case, it’s possible that an issue raised by the head of the district committee swayed the “no” voters. Kennedy’s siblings still attended school in Hughes Springs—if family concerns had forced Kennedy to move and change schools, then why hadn’t his siblings done the same?
Motheral, as has been his practice for years, tried to soften the blow for the losing side. “Good luck to you, young man,” he told Kennedy. “You’ve got a bright future. If you have any questions, you can contact Mr. cat UIL. We’ll move on to the next hearing.”
Kennedy spent his senior year eligible only for junior varsity sports. But after the six-foot-four, 235-pound fullback/defensive end played his first JV game, Daingerfield’s three remaining opponents refused to play if Kennedy was going to be in uniform. He spent the rest of the season practicing and watching from the sideline.
Welcome to the court of last resort for UIL athletes who’ve been ruled ineligible by their district committees. It’s the end of the road for a process that begins when a student who participates in high-school sports decides to transfer. At that point, a coach or administrator from the athlete’s former school files a Previous Athletic Participation Form (PAPF) with the UIL. If whoever fills out the form checks a box to indicate that the student is “changing schools for athletic purposes,” and the district committee agrees with the school’s evaluation, then the transfer student must sit out of varsity sports for twelve months.
During the 2020-21 school year, which ended this month, district committees processed more than 10,000 PAPFs across the state, according to UIL executive director Charles Breithaupt. Fifty-two resulted in district findings that athletes transferred for sports and were appealed at the state level. No matter what other factors might have contributed to a transfer—moving from one relative’s home to another, a parent’s loss of a job, a family doctor’s note recommending a change for health reasons—the chances of reversing the district rulings were slim. Statewide, only eight appeals were granted.
During one state committee hearing this past school year, Motheral explained the board’s role in the appeal process: “When someone moves, we have a very thorough process for making sure it’s not for the wrong reasons. Because if we don’t maintain a level playing field where people aren’t gonna go from one place to the other just because of greener pastures, we’ve got to do that. So everyone is scrutinized. And that’s what we’re going through today. I don’t know what the result’s gonna be, but please accept the process, okay?”
The hearings are open to the public, with recordings of the proceedings—held virtually during the pandemic instead of at the UIL offices in Austin—archived on the UIL website. When I first attended a full school year’s worth some years back as a reporter for the Dallas Morning News, I anticipated easy-to-predict, open-and-shut cases. I was profoundly mistaken.
“It’s always emotional,” said Chilton ISD superintendent Brandon Hubbard, who saw one of three athletes from his high school win an appeal this year. “You have a student and family that wants to participate and be active and think they have the right to be active.”
One of the few state appeals winners during the year was Kaden Davis, approved to play varsity basketball for Jim Ned High School in Tuscola after a fire in his home forced his family to move and Davis to leave Abilene Cooper. The district chair told the state committee that Davis’s eligibility was rejected because the student’s mother had mentioned a potential move to Jim Ned months before the fire. By the time Davis’s appeal had been granted in mid-January, only a handful of games remained in the senior’s season.
Jim Ned basketball coach Eric Phelps questioned a system in which a player’s eligibility is initially decided by district committees whose members represent rival high schools. “When the district votes, you don’t always know if the district’s voting for what’s best for that kid or for what’s best for their athletic programs,” Phelps told Texas Monthly. “‘Do I want a six-four kid to become eligible?’ That’s the hard part.”
Daingerfield football coach Davin Nelson agreed. “At the district level, I don’t think that we should be allowed to be in charge of making a decision,” he said. “Within our district, I’ve seen almost every other kid that goes to a different school be approved, but anytime a kid tries to come to Daingerfield, they’re not approved. It’s almost like they just talk to each other—‘Well, Daingerfield’s good as it is. Let’s go ahead and, you know, make this decision so this kid can’t go there and [they] can’t get even better than what they are.’”
Sometimes, the outcomes of state appeals hearings seem to be in conflict with common sense. In January, a Dallas high school junior was denied because he told the district committee that he would have stayed at his former school if he had not been demoted to junior varsity basketball. During the state hearing, the teen’s mother tearfully explained that her son sometimes struggles to clearly convey his thoughts. During the same session, representatives of the originating school attempted to reverse their previous position and told the committee that they no longer believed the athlete had changed school for athletic purposes. Motheral, whose demeanor during hearings usually remains unbiased and dispassionate, became exasperated and complained that the case was “a mess.” Despite the withdrawal of the central accusation, the committee still voted to deny the player’s appeal, apparently because of what he told the district committee. Motheral then went to great lengths to tell the player that many of the smartest students whom he’d dealt with through the years had overcome learning disabilities.
Some appeals are approved on the condition that the UIL accepts the student’s guardianship or residency in a new district. This was the case with four of the eight appeals granted last school year, which led to three ultimately being denied.
Among them was Braylan Laminack, a senior at Rising Star High School in Eastland County. Before his junior year, 2019–20, the district committee okayed Laminack’s residence change after the varsity football player left his mother and stepfather to live with a grandmother and transferred from Cisco High to Comanche High. Last summer, Laminack moved in with an aunt in Rising Star and had to file another change-of-residence form to play sports at his new school.
The district committee ruled him ineligible in mid-September, with Comanche coach Stephen Hermesmeyer saying he’d heard from some of his players that Laminack thought he would be one of the standouts at Rising Star, which plays six-man football. The state committee granted Laminack’s appeal in October, with two games remaining in the football season, including Senior Night. Rising Star principal Albert Abshire said that the day before Senior Night, he received an email from district committee chairman James Rucker of Sidney ISD that said Laminack had been denied a waiver of the UIL’s parent residence rule because he didn’t live with his mother, who is his legal guardian. But Laminack wasn’t living with his mother the previous year, when he played for Comanche.
Do other state athletic associations regulate transfers of high school athletes as strictly as Texas? There is no national study breaking down each state’s approach, but it’s not hard to find examples of states that are more lenient. Karissa Niehoff, executive director of the National Federation of State High School Associations, said she could only relate her experience in Connecticut, where athletes gain immediate eligibility if they qualify for any of several recognized hardship exemptions.
Under Connecticut’s eligibility rules, a hardship is “defined as an unforeseeable act, condition or event which may not reasonably and/or practically be avoided or corrected and which causes the imposition of a severe burden upon the student or his/her family.” In Texas, students experiencing similar circumstances can still be ruled ineligible if the district and state committees decide that despite those mitigating factors, athletic reasons were a part of the decision to transfer.
Although complicated cases have sometimes led to unsatisfying or inconsistent outcomes, Breithaupt told Texas Monthly he is confident in the appeals process. “Having fewer than fifty students ruled ineligible is incredible with the large number of participants in UIL sports,” he wrote in an email. “This shows that the system is working.” He also emphasized the organization’s commitment to preventing students from changing schools to further their athletic ambitions. “A great benefit of high school sports is learning to accept decisions and working within the confines of the existing environment.”
Participation in youth sports is often said to teach valuable qualities like teamwork and persistence. For Texas high schoolers whose UIL eligibility appeals fall short, the lessons learned about accepting defeat come far from the gridiron, court, or baseball diamond.