Baseball ruling barring Puerto Rican players could have wider impact

Lake Worth High administrators never should have permitted 11 boys from Puerto Rico to suit up for the school’s baseball team last spring, the Florida High School Athletic Association has concluded.

While the dispute began when a rival coach cried foul claiming the teens were ineligible ringers, the findings could have a chilling effect, keeping hundreds, if not thousands, of students across the state from playing school sports because of their living arrangements, the Palm Beach County School District argues.

The boys, all unrelated, described the man who enrolled them in school, cooked their meals and practiced ball with them daily, as their guardian. Their parents, who remained in Puerto Rico, had given Rafael Paris power of attorney in their children’s lives.

That’s good enough to enroll in Lake Worth High or any other Palm Beach County school. But it’s not good enough to participate in sports, argues the FHSAA. For that you need to have rights by biology or court-appointed guardianship.

That’s something many students, particularly poor or immigrant children, don’t have.

“The district is really concerned about the statewide implications. This isn’t about 11 students that weren’t allowed to play baseball,” Palm Beach County’s attorney in the matter Lisa Carmona told an unyielding FHSAA appeals panel this month.

District officials count at least 500 high school students who don’t meet the standard — and those are just the ones the district knows about, spokeswoman Amity Chandler said.

The point is moot for the 11 teens who were barred from the game during the investigation and later declared ineligible because of their relationship to Paris. They returned to Puerto Rico over the summer.

The FHSAA officials hearing the district’s appeal said they have no intention of digging through every athletes’ paperwork looking for more scofflaws. The appeal was declined, and the district owes $200 in fines for four violations, Chandler said.

That news didn’t appease the attorney who once represented the Puerto Rican players in a lawsuit against the school district claiming discrimination.

Dan Lustig was forced to drop the suit when the teens headed home, but he said discrimination is still at play.

“These are not illegal children. These are American children denied the ability to play sports because of their socioeconomic status. Their parents could not afford to live here. So they essentially shut the door in these kids’ faces,” Lustig said.

Rival prompts probe

The door appeared wide open when the boys — four seniors, one sophomore and the rest juniors — arrived in the summer of 2015.

The parents sent their sons to Florida with Paris, who had been their baseball coach in Puerto Rico for four years. They moved into an apartment a short walk from Lake Worth High and began playing ball. For this arrangement, parents paid into an account held by Paris in Puerto Rico.

Lake Worth’s baseball coach at the time, Bobby Gilbert Jr., recalled this summer how lucky he felt to have a group of top notch players move into the area. Several became standouts, with two leading the Trojans in hitting and three among its top pitchers.

But about the time they were poised to make a playoff run, the coach at rival powerhouse Park Vista contacted FHSAA with concerns and an investigation ensued.

The investigation focused on three issues: Paris’ arrangement with the players and their parents. Any contact on the teens’ behalf with Lake Worth’s coach and administration. And the eligibility forms FHSAA requires parents to sign before students play.

FHSAA officials declared that two conversations that Gilbert had with Paris and the mother of a 12th player amounted to a violation of its athletic recruiting policies, but waived all but $50 of the potential fines when the school dropped coach Gilbert from its roster. He remains a teacher in the district.

The remaining two violations went to forms regarding student physicals and releasing legal liability that Paris signed. A data processor checked the wrong box, but even if she had hit the proper one, the FHSAA wouldn’t have accepted it because Paris isn’t their legally appointed guardian.

Bar too high?

This is where the district takes issue.

Consider the students who live with their grandmothers, friends or extended family but don’t have a judge’s order declaring them legal guardians.

Requiring a legally appointed guardian is too high of a bar, particularly in a district and in a school that was told by the U.S. Department of Justice that it was making it too difficult for students to enroll and thus discriminating against poor and minorities. Under a settlement with federal authorities, the district wrote policies that were less restrictive, Carmona told the FHSAA panel.

When the players were allowed to enroll and to play ball with Paris’ signature, they weren’t being given a perk because of their athletic prowess — an “impermissible benefit” that is forbidden by the athletic association — they were treated the same as all students, the district’s lawyer said.

But the argument failed to gain traction with the FHSAA panel.

“FHSAA has rights to make bylaws and one of those we have is in order to participate you need a physical and liability form must be signed by a parent or guardian as defined as one appointed by the court. That’s the line that is drawn here,” a panel member said.

“The definitions of parent need to be consistent,” countered Carmona to no avail. She also argued, “If those kids had shown up with mom and dad and enrolled in school, tried out for baseball, they would be enrolled here today.”

Replied FHSAA: “But they came in contact with the coach. That’s the problem.”

From the sidelines, Lustig is frustrated: “There’s no evidence they reached out to Lake Worth High School or Lake Worth High School reached out to them. There was no special treatment. They persecuted the kids because parents were putting money into an account to feed their own children.”

‘Play good baseball’

The parents each paid $425 a month, or $4,625 total for living expenses, another $20 a month for car insurance. The group also received food stamp benefits that topped out at about $1,100 per month.

In the beginning, the 11 students, who knew each other from playing on Paris’ team in Puerto Rico, were accompanied by another boy and his mother, Monica Rolon. And briefly, the 12 students and two adults split costs and responsibilities while living in neighboring apartments within walking distance of the school. Each apartment rented at $1,450 a month.

Rolon later moved out with her son, transferring him to another Palm Beach County High school, where he finished the season playing ball, according to the boys and the former coach.

The parents were paying into an account held by Paris’ business P&M Baseball Management Inc. The apartment lease was also held in that name, investigators reported.

Paris and Rolon spoke to Gilbert before moving. Gilbert said the first conversation was with the mom who asked how to enroll a student at the school.

Rolon told investigators, “I tell him we had heard the team was not winning tournaments and things and Rafael told me that we can help them be competitive and that is what I told (the coach). We are here for them to study and play good baseball. … He said just make your registration to the school and let’s start practicing and that’s what we did.”

Gilbert spoke to Paris after school began.

From the investigative transcript: “Did you find it strange that one man was representing 11 kids that were of no relation to him and they used to all play for him in Puerto Rico and now he has them all here at one school looking to play for you?”

Coach Gilbert: “Not sure I really thought about it, but when I saw the kids play, I knew we were going to be real good and we were going to beat some really good teams that we are not expected to beat. And they were going to question it.”

He said he shared those concerns with Principal George Lockhart.

“Dr. Lockhart asked me two questions: Are they enrolled in the school and do they live in our district? I said, ‘yes’ to both questions and Dr. Lockhart said, ‘then play ball.’”

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