CLARKSBURG – A Harrison County high school athlete wants to play football this fall even though his high school isn’t fielding a team.
Gabriel Lopez is a junior at Notre Dame High School in Clarksburg. He was a starter in his freshman and sophomore seasons with the Fighting Irish. Earlier this month, school officials announced it wouldn’t have enough players to field a football team this season.
On Aug. 5, Lewis’ father Thomas Lopez asked the West Virginia Secondary School Activities Commission if his son could study at Notre Dame and play football for Robert C. Byrd High, which also is located in Clarksburg.
On Aug. 8, SSAC Executive Director Bernie Dolan responded by saying Lopez could not do that. Six days later, Notre Dame officially announced it wouldn’t have a football team this season.
On Aug. 19, Thomas Lopez filed a complaint in Harrison Circuit Court on behalf of his son seeking injunctive relief and a temporary restraining order against the SSAC. Sam Madia, Joseph Shaffer and Jonathan Wesley Prince of Shaffer Madia Law in Morgantown are representing the plaintiffs.
“The SSAC is given the authority legislatively to make its own rules,” Madia told The West Virginia Record. “That’s a pretty significant power that we give them. As an officer of the court, I am talking about attorneys and judges, it’s our duty to make sure that the laws that agencies like the SSAC create are fair.
“I think that we may be dealing with a situation where the regulations in place are not reasonable. They’re arbitrary. In middle school, you can do this. In high school, you can’t do this.”
Madia said at least one other Notre Dame football player has contacted his firm to express interest in joining Lopez at RCB.
“It boils down to numbers,” Madia told The Record. “These kids would like to play ball. They don’t want to transfer. But, the SSAC says you can’t transfer for athletic reasons. These kids don’t want to transfer. They want to stay at Notre Dame. They also want a chance to play high school football.
“But, the law doesn’t allow that now. I’m hoping the SSAC, on their own, will grant this request. But, I don’t expect that. So, our next step is asking the circuit court to put the SSAC in check. We need to make sure their laws are legitimate, not arbitrary.”
The complaint says the SSAC is “vested with the authority to allow plaintiff Gabriel Lopez to participate in football at Robert C. Byrd High School while remaining enrolled at Notre Dame High School.”
The plaintiffs have started proceedings to appeal the SSAC decision, but a hearing isn’t scheduled until Aug. 29. That’s one day before RCB opens its 2019 season.
Rules say students can participate in interscholastic sports only for schools in which they are enrolled, but it says the SSAC Board of Directors can grant exceptions.
“However, the WVSSAC Board of Directors is vested with the authority to allow a similarly situated student, like plaintiff Gabriel Lopez, in a feeder school (i.e. junior high or middle school) to be enrolled in a feeder school and participate in interscholastic athletics at a different feeder school,” the complaint states, explaining that if Lopez still were in middle school he could participate in football at a different middle school if his didn’t have a team.
The plaintiffs claim this rule is age-based discrimination, violating the West Virginia Human Rights Act. Thus, they seek a ruling saying the current SSAC law is discriminatory and unenforceable.
The case has been assigned to Circuit Judge James A. Matish. A court hearing before Matish is scheduled for Sept. 5.
Harrison Circuit Court case number 19-C-220