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Reno international students sue to play high school sports

RENO — Students from a small Reno high school are challenging rules that bar international high school students from playing on varsity sports teams in Nevada.

In a federal equal rights lawsuit filed in Reno last week, Excel Christian School and five of its students claim that the laws and regulations governing international student-athletes in Nevada schools are precluding several of its students from playing on varsity teams, and in turn denying them “part of the identity and fun that all students have.”

The school reached out to the Nevada Interscholastic Activities Association before the 2019 school year to make sure its teams were in compliance, only to be told that the five students were ineligible to play due to their international status. The school asked if the association could make an exception, but to no avail.

“They didn’t think it was fair, and they wanted to find a solution,” said Alex Velto of the Hutchison and Steffen law firm, an attorney for the school and students. “But the NIAA wouldn’t budge.”

That meant that Excel, a school of 45 students, could not field a full team to play in its eight-man football league and didn’t have enough eligible students for full nonvarsity basketball and cheerleading teams.

“The students want to feel part of the school. They want to integrate and participate in the same activities that inspire pride in students as those who are United States resident students,” the lawsuit said.

Under NIAA regulations, international students in the ninth, 10th and 11th grades can play only for nonvarsity teams. International students in the 12th grade are prohibited from playing on any sanctioned sports team.

The Excel students suing the NIAA are in the U.S. on F-1 visas. Four of them are underclassmen who cannot play because the school has only enough players to field varsity teams in the sports they want to play. The fifth, identified only by her initials “NU. J.,” was barred from playing for the school’s basketball and volleyball teams as a senior after she had played for them in previous seasons.

“If you’re a senior international student, you just have no options,” Velto said.

Bart Thompson, executive director of the NIAA, said the international students from Excel are being treated the same as any other student who transfers to a school on a zone variance, meaning that “a student from Nevada similarly situated would get the same degree of eligibility.”

“We feel like our rules treat students fairly,” Thompson added.

Velto said the Excel students appear to have been tangled up by the laws that try “to prevent powerhouse schools from recruiting students to come to the U.S. to play for them.”

In 2005, the NIAA ruled then-Bishop Gorman senior Jonathan Tavernari, a 6-foot-6 forward from Brazil, ineligible to play, though a judge later set aside that decision and allowed him to play.

Velto said they hope to have something resolved before the prep winter sport season ends next month so that students like “NU. J.” would have a chance to play.

The lawsuit notes that while there does not appear to be any federal case that directly touches on the issue of international student eligibility, a Washington state Court of Appeals case from 1999 did strike down similar restrictions on foreign exchange students under the equal protection clause of the 14th Amendment.

Contact Capital Bureau Chief Colton Lochhead at clochhead@reviewjournal.com or 775-461-3820. Follow @ColtonLochhead on Twitter.

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