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In R.I., hardship cases, landing waivers can be tough

September 12, 2013

Woonsocket High School athletic director George Nasuti. PHOTO BY ERNEST A. BROWN

WOONSOCKET — “I’m doing this for the betterment of these two kids,” declares George Nasuti.

It is the intent of the longtime Woonsocket High athletic director to exhaust all options in the hopes of obtaining a hardship waiver for two currently enrolled student-athletes. Due to their circumstances, these Villa Novans – for identity purposes, they are referred to as a boys’ soccer player and a baseball player – do not meet the Rhode Island Interscholastic League’s basic eligibility principles.

Each one should have graduated this past June. They are now walking around the Cass Avenue campus as reclassified fifth-year seniors.

This isn’t the first time that Nasuti has devoted effort to a cause that can prove uncomfortably sticky. In R.I. high school athletics, the concept of hardship is a multi-layered process where nothing is guaranteed.

Put yourself in the shoes of one of these youngsters-in-question. They may become apprehensive when standing before the RIIL’s Waiver Request Hearing Committee, a five-person tribunal that performs an arbitrary service on all hardship-related cases. Such trepidation on the adolescent’s part is understandable, for it can’t be easy to divulge specifics related to strained family relations or foreign living arrangements before a panel of impartial strangers.

Through all the personal angst that can come with unearthing deep secrets lies the silver lining, at least according to Nasuti.

“We do it to give them a chance. Some kids deserve it and some don’t, so you have to balance that,” the longtime Woonsocket educator and supporter of athletics recently expressed while sitting behind the desk of his second-floor office inside the McFee Administration Building. “It’s a tough thing for me, but it’s my responsibility to defend these children if asked.”

The process requires a lot of elbow grease, Nasuti says. Still, the undertaking is well worth the labor if inclusion on a team can give kids one last chance to earn a high school diploma. It’s a opportunity to get a young person’s life back on track before it gets lost in the inner-city shuffle for good.
What is the definition of an athletic hardship? Before Nasuti is a varied caseload that helps him arrive at the crux of this delicate matter.

With the boys’ soccer player, you have a 19-year-old who enrolled at Woonsocket High on the first day of classes after spending the 2012-13 school year with his family outside of the United States. He attended East Providence High for three years prior to leaving the country.

The soccer player resides in Woonsocket with a guardian “who wants to do what’s best for this boy,” says Nasuti. The biggest red flag in this instance is his age. RIIL rules state that an athlete is ineligible for athletic competition if his or her 19th birthday occurs before Sept. 1.

But Nasuti feels he has a chance to get the play involved through a bylaw allowing athletes to be eligible for eight semesters beginning the moment of their ninth-grade year. By that accounting, the soccer player still has two semesters of eligibility left.

“Here’s a young boy who lost eligibility because of his family and lifestyle,” notes Nasuti. “Now he’s back in the area.”
Concerning the baseball player, his particular hardship concerns are rooted in his home life. It’s a story that Nasuti can recite chapter and verse – the A.D. has known this boy since he turned “10 or 11 years old.” Unlike the soccer player, the baseball player has not yet celebrated his 19th birthday.

“Here’s a young person who’s been living in the city and isn’t eligible because he hasn’t done what he’s supposed to do,” said Nasuti. “Some family lives are difficult and others are extremely difficult.”

In both instances, each male came to Nasuti looking for guidance and to gauge whether he would be willing to go to bat for them with the RIIL. Nasuti plans to reach out to the powers-that-be at Interscholastic League headquarters, a practice he has done in the past.

By providing a synopsis of each one’s hardship, Woonsocket’s athletic leader figures he can get a sense of whether going ahead in the appeal process could prove worthwhile, or a fool’s errand.

“Previously I’ve gone to the RIIL and told them that I didn’t know if something qualifies as a hardship,” Nasuti said. (Executive Director Tom Mezzanotte) would say to bring it forward and let us decide.”
If he decides to go through with the process, Nasuti will undertake a fact-finding mission leaving no stone unturned. With hardship, every piece of supporting evidence is crucial.
The gathering of transcripts, medical documentation and supporting letters represents part of the legwork and a responsibility Nasuti prefers to put squarely on the kids. Constant dialogue between himself, the student seeking athletic asylum and a guardian is also paramount in making sure everyone is prepared with what could unfold when the time comes to stand before the waiver committee.

“You have to tell everything that’s happening and be truthful. I’ve been at waiver hearings where some serious issues have come up, and we have those with our kids,” Nasuti says. “You go in front of a group of people and open up your heart and tell them what you’re going through. You count on them to vote, ‘Is this good for the student or the Interscholastic League?’

“It’s difficult because these are young people and families standing before total strangers – strangers who may not have the same background and don’t even know what city kids deal with,” Nasuti delves further. “I’ve been with kids who cry and get upset and families that feel uncomfortable to the point that they may hold back. It can make for a tense situation, but you have to lay it all on the line.”

Hence the importance of character witnesses who can articulate points that don’t come across as slanted or biased. Nasuti has no trouble breaking the ice and saying why everyone has gathered in the first place. However, “I can’t be the sole voice.”

Along that train of thought, Nasuti refrains from having his head coaches present at waiver meetings. His rationale: Their appearance would detract from the motive of getting this hopeful player eligible and lend undeserved credence to the notion that they seek to add players for the purpose of bolstering the team’s chances.
“Administrators, principals or guidance counselors should get involved,” Nasuti adamantly expressed. “The committee is looking for as many people as possible.”
In his capacity as athletic director, Nasuti has brought a half-dozen hardship cases before the RIIL’s waiver committee. The last time he went before the board with a meaningful request was prior to the 2010 football season. The outcome ended up in favor of this gridiron contributor.

“It had to do with academics and length of eligibility. He had missed years, but very similar to the baseball player, his family life was difficult. He’s had hardships that affected him,” said Nasuti.

Woonsocket was able to keep this particular football player in school during the academic year prior to the RIIL awarding him eligibility. On the strength of a support staff that was determined to see this particular Villa Novan pull through, he was enrolled as a special education student and given permission to practice with head coach Carnell Henderson’s squad.

“We kept this inner city kid with a tough background in school and playing football,” Nasuti proudly stated. “He was ineligible his junior season, but we kept him in school by having him practice with us, but he never played. He went to school every day and practiced, but when his time came, he put the work in. He wanted to make himself better. We put him up because we knew he was going to give us the effort.”

The jury remains out if Nasuti can have similar success with the current waiver applicants. The biggest obstacle with the boys’ soccer player is that the waiver interpretation meeting for fall student-athletes has already taken place. The next waiver meeting is Oct. 16 and is supposed to be reserved for winter athletic hopefuls.

Again noting that the soccer player didn’t enter school until the first day of classes, Nasuti has his fingers crossed that he can convince the waiver committee to hold an emergency session that not only addresses his situation, “but any other cases at this time.”

On the surface, it would seem counterproductive to wait until next month’s scheduled conclave before finding out whether or not the soccer player can slide on a Villa Novans jersey. Time is of the essence, and it wouldn’t be fair for the player to learn of his fate with little precious time remaining in the regular season.

With the baseball player, Nasuti still has time – the waiver meeting for prospective springtime contributors isn’t until next February 5.
What happens if the waiver committee rules against the two Woonsocket prospects? Nasuti did not exactly portray confidence when he replied to said question with, “My feeling is that these kids might not graduate.”

That may come across as grim, but it shows what kind of against-the-tide fight Nasuti has on his hands.
“If you stay back and you’re too old, that’s your fault,” he said. “Family life, moving and cultural differences, that’s different from failing a class.”

Question is: do the decision makers who are granted the power of autonomy in such matters share Nasuti’s sentiment?

Follow Brendan McGair on Twitter @BWMcGair03

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