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Editorial: Regents should take a stand in favor of expanding opportunity for athletes

The State Education Department showed admirable compassion in allowing an Orchard Park football player with autism to suit up this fall. Now the Board of Regents should show the same good judgment by changing the regulation that nearly kept him from taking the field.

The hard and fast adherence to a rule nearly benched Jacob Kohler. It could affect other young people in his situation: those who by no fault of their own are not ready to participate in a sport when first entering high school, and need more time to graduate.

Jacob was born with autism and is taking a fifth year to graduate from high school. Jacob was small for his age and didn’t play sports as a freshman. He joined the cross-country team in his sophomore year, then played two years of football. He wanted to play a third year this season, but enter bureaucracy and an adherence to the letter of the law.

Officials at Section VI, which governs high school sports in Western New York, said that Jacob had already exhausted his four years of high school sports eligibility, which allows four consecutive years of sports starting in the ninth grade. It hardly seemed fair, given the reason he didn’t play as a freshman. He wanted only the fourth year on the field that most athletes receive.

His parents appealed the eligibility ruling to New York State Education Commissioner MaryEllen Elia who, in her wisdom, issued a stay. Jacob could play with his team pending a final decision, which conveniently won’t come until next year, long after the football season ends.

The Education Department is considering reinstating an exception to the eligibility regulations that existed until 2014 so that students who have extenuating circumstances would be allowed to participate in sports. The change would grant an extension of eligibility if a student lost a season due to illness, accident or other circumstances beyond the control of the student.

This should be an easy decision for the Board of Regents, which is now taking public comments on the issue. It could come to a vote in February.

Jacob’s participation was never likely to change the outcome of a game, generally getting in for a few plays when the game had already been decided. But that is not the point. Sports has done for him what it has done for many young people. It has given him a sense of purpose that has helped him perform better in the classroom.

Jacob and others in similar circumstances should have the opportunity to thrive that can come from a simple rule change.

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