EDWARDS - This is America and in the land of the free, American kids should be free to play football anywhere they want, right?
A regional middle school athletic conference, the Rocky Mountain League, is accused of trying to bar some athletes from that very freedom with bylaws that appear fly-in-the face of state laws and Colorado High School Activities Association regulations.
The league is Eagle County's four public middle schools, Summit County middle school, Vail Mountain School and the Catholics and Protestants (St. Clare's and The Vail Academy), who have stopped persecuting each other long enough to play football together. St. Clare's and The Vail Academy play everything as one team, on teams that are not called the "Schism Fixers," but should be.
Basically, the Rocky Mountain League's athletic directors passed a bylaw that goes something like this: If a kid's school doesn't offer a particular sport, that kid has to play for the school nearest their school, and not the school they want to.
Well, a half dozen or so Vail Mountain School students and a handful of others want to play their middle school football for St. Clare's. Under this bylaw, they'd have to play somewhere else.
Mike Gass handles student affairs for the Eagle County school district, and while he didn't create this mess, he said it's his job to deal with it. Gass was with Vail Mountain School's Janet Refior when they called to say they were working out a deal.
"Our hope is that the league rescinds that bylaw. Hopefully, within the next week, we'll be back to where we were last year," Gass said.
The Rocky Mountain League has been around for 20 years in various incarnations. What's different, Gass said, is that it now has public schools, private schools, parochial schools, public charter schools and state charter schools.
Everyone has a different view of the law about who can play where, although the law itself seems pretty clear.
The actual law reads:
"If a student's school of attendance or non-public home-based educational program does not offer an activity in which the student wishes to participate, the student may participate in the activity at another public school in the student's school district of attendance or in the student's district of residence," according to Colorado Revised Statutes sect. 22-32-116.5(2)(b).
Vail Mountain School picks up high school tennis. Kids from all over the valley play hockey for Battle Mountain, the only high school program in the county. Kids drive to Glenwood Springs to swim.
Let there be football
St. Clare's football coach Bob Engleby coached little league football and as time passed, his players were about to be scattered among various middle schools.
St. Clare principal Sister Rita Rae, a force of nature and one of the sweetest humans to ever walk God's green earth, declared that she wanted a football team for the school.
At a fundraiser, Engleby gave a 30-second speech about football and its endless possibilities for wonderfulness. Donations started flowing.
Last year, the Rocky Mountain League athletic directors provided their version of a papal dispensation and let St. Clare's play in their league.
St. Clare's rolled through its first middle school football season, losing in the league finals to Gypsum Creek Middle School.
"This has nothing to do with their success," Gass said.
This year, Vail Mountain School's football parents were required to write hardship letters stating why their children should play for St. Clare's instead of one of the public schools right up the road.
In their May 23 meeting, Rocky Mountain League athletic directors decided their hardships aren't all that hard and denied them all.
"Sorry," said an email to the parents from Eagle Valley Middle School's Tommy Dodge.
"We're talking about 12-year-old boys," countered VMS football father Larry Nisonoff.
Then Nisonoff trotted out some state law and regulations that would appear to support his position, as law often does when it appears to be on your side.
Nisonoff and others pointed out that the people who wanted to bar them were the same ones who ruled against their hardship requests.
"We want them to eliminate the hardship rule and if a school doesn't offer a sport or activity, let the kids play where they want. We're not asking anything that state law and CHSAA regulations don't already provide," Engleby said. "You're wronging 6th, 7th and 8th grade kids for no good reason."
For now, the athletic directors appear to be getting a 15-yard penalty for bylaw busting and a recommendation to rescind that offending bylaw.
"My recommendation would be to rescind that last bylaw that they implemented because of the unintended issues it has created," Gass said. "We had some well-intended athletic directors who didn't understand the statute."
Gass said the situation is an opportunity.
"It seems trivial that we're talking about it through the lens of middle school football, but the issue is real. With all the types of schools we have, we're working hard to integrate kids through all these different kinds of activities," Gass said.
"We want kids in activities and on fields because that means they're making the right choices in life."
Staff Writer Randy Wyrick can be reached at 970-748-2935 or firstname.lastname@example.org.