Will Juston Johnson be allowed to play in West Seneca West’s next boys basketball game?
That will be decided Wednesday in State Supreme Court. Johnson is seeking an immediate stay that would allow him to potentially play while he continues to appeal a Section VI ruling that said his six-year window for playing high school basketball has expired.
In court documents and interviews with the News, Johnson and his family say that a broken arm he suffered playing pickup football before the start of his eighth-grade year prevented him from attending school and from being able to take a required fitness test. The test is used to determine whether seventh- and eighth-graders are physically strong enough to handle playing junior varsity or varsity sports prior to entering high school. Johnson played junior varsity basketball as a seventh-grader.
Section VI and the New York State Public High School Athletic Association argue that Johnson had the cast removed in October of that year and had the splint removed four weeks after that, before the basketball season started, and Johnson could have attended West Seneca with the necessary academic accommodations while the injury healed.
In responses filed with the court Tuesday, an attorney for the NYSPHSAA said, “the underlying facts in the case at hand point to exactly the type of conduct which the Duration of Competition Rule is designed to prevent.”
Here are the points of contention heading into Wednesday’s hearing:
A scholastic basketball player has up to six years of eligibility beginning in seventh grade. That’s regardless of which level the player competes in during his first season (modified, junior varsity or varsity). Section VI and the NYSPHSAA contend that Johnson has used up all his time. That includes a repeat of eighth grade that it considers his third year.
The Johnsons said the broken arm prompted the parents to home-school Juston during the 2013-14 academic year (which would have been his original eighth-grade year). Johnson did not participate in any school activities, including sports. They argue that year should not be counted against him.
They also say Johnson would not have been able to play that year because he could not have passed the fitness test with the broken arm, although that was a secondary consideration.
“To us, athletics didn’t play a part in it,” Demeris Johnson, Juston's father, said. “It was the broken arm that was the reason that he missed school.”
Section VI Executive Director Timm Slade and representatives of the NYSPHSAA filed affidavits with the court Tuesday.
Slade made the original ruling, saying West Seneca schools, which made the request to extend Johnson’s eligibility, failed to show that Johnson could not play because of “accident, illness, documented social/emotional condition or documented social/emotional circumstances beyond the control of the student.” He also said the school failed to show that Johnson needed an extra year to graduate because of any of those situations.
Slade also noted, “there is no evidence the Petitioner was not physically able to participate in basketball during the 2013-14 season.”
- The repeat year
A significant issue in the eventual determination is why Johnson repeated eighth grade.
The Johnsons say when they went to enroll Juston for ninth grade in August 2014, the school registrar indicated that they did not have the appropriate paperwork to fulfill academic requirements. The family decided it would be best for Juston to retake eighth grade in order to complete his core courses.
In an affidavit, West Seneca Schools Superintendent Matthew Bystrak, who was not in the same position at the time, said the “parents decided to home-school Petitioner for his 2013-14 school year and decided to have petitioner enroll back in eighth grade for the 2014-15 school year.”
In his affidavit, Slade said, “the decision to home-school for an entire year and not provide the necessary curriculum is solely within the control of the Petitioner and his parents. There is no evidence that West Seneca refused to admit the Petitioner as a ninth grader.”
Slade also said, “The Petitioner’s father explicitly indicated to me that he was having his son … repeat eighth grade so he would be taller and stronger for basketball.” Demeris Johnson has denied that conversation took place.
- What is being decided?
A stay means Juston gets to play in games as soon as Thursday’s contest against St. Francis at the ADPRO Public versus Private Schools Challenge at St. Mary’s of Lancaster. He has been allowed to practice throughout the process.
Should the judge rule against Juston, he can’t play until his appeals case concludes. Ryan Carney, the Johnsons’ attorney, has cited a letter from the state that indicates the appeals process could take at least eight weeks, meaning much of the season will be over. In his court filing, Carney said that is why he has gone to the courts.
- Who will be impacted most by Wednesday’s decision?
Besides Johnson, his teammates.
Members of West Seneca West’s boys basketball team held a press conference Tuesday morning at the community library where they voiced their support for Johnson.
The team is unhappy district school officials didn’t consult with players and their parents before an initial hearing last week in which they say school officials argued Johnson’s teammates would be harmed if Johnson played during his appeal only to later be deemed ineligible. That would result in the team forfeiting wins or any championships won with Johnson in the lineup. Johnson’s attorney argues that would only be an issue if the court vacated the stay.
That resulted in West Seneca West senior Deric Rivera reading the following statement on behalf of the team Tuesday:
“We, the West Seneca West Varsity basketball team, have been informed of the consequences of Juston Johnson being granted interim relief by the Supreme Court. We understand that if Juston is declared temporarily eligible and later deemed ineligible, that we may be subject to team discipline in the form of forfeiting games. Despite this potential punishment, we unanimously share the sentiment that we wish for Juston to be granted this relief from the court, even if it comes at the eventual cost of forfeiting those games in which he participates, and we win. We have been hopeful from the start of this process that Juston would be able to play his last year at West Seneca West with his friends and teammates but have been disappointed every step of the way that he’s been denied. We are willing to make sacrifices in the future so that our classmate, teammate and friend can play with us now.”
The letter was filed with the court on Tuesday. Part of the appeals process will involve whether Johnson playing would deny another player opportunity. The letter from the team is intended to minimize that contention.
In another show of support, West Seneca West players used velcro and applied makeshift patches with Johnson's No. 5 on the left front of their jerseys. The Indians also played the first 3 minutes and 48 seconds of their division-opening game at Williamsville North with just four players on the court. They held an 8-7 lead when they decided to go five on five against North, which won 62-53.
"Originally my kids didn't even want to show up and play but I couldn't allow that to happen," said West coach Des Randall, who is also Juston Johnson's brother. "So we came up with four on five. ... Then they wore the patches in remembrance of him so that he could be out there one way or another."
Slade and state athletic officials argue that West Seneca West opponents would be hurt if Johnson were allowed to play a seventh ear because it would not create a level playing field. Johnson, a 2018 first-team All-Western New York selection, is among the best players in the area.
- Why are we at this point now?
Even though school districts have from the end of a district’s graduation in mid-June to Oct. 1 to file eligibility extension forms on behalf of student-athletes, it’s still a process that takes time. In West Seneca West’s case, Bystrak said the paperwork was sent for Johnson’s extension around Sept. 10.
“I would assume if there was a deadline for filing that it would be possible for it to be resolved in a manner that wouldn’t have an adverse impact on the student,” Bystrak said.
Section VI denied the application by West Seneca schools on Sept. 18. The decision was upheld by the NYSPHSAA appeals panel on Nov. 8. The Article 78 petition was filed Dec. 5.
Asked why he thought the case remained unresolved, Demeris Johnson declined comment.