News: Fourth and One 

A system set up to keep high school coaches from recruiting sidelines a player.

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Jared Tupa’i has played football for half of his 17 years. He can’t imagine the coming years without it. But now that he’s a high school senior, he’s stuck on the sidelines—trapped by one-size-fits-all eligibility rules and a coach who insisted on talking out of school about a player.

Tupa’i, a 300-plus pound lineman has played three years for Murray High School. The official reason he’s warming the bench now has something to do with the fact that he is living with his mother.

His parents are divorced. Last fall, Tupai’s mother moved to Taylorsville. His father went for a two-month trip to Western Samoa, leaving Tupa’i with no place to stay within Murray’s boundaries.

Tupa’i moved in with his mother but continued attending and playing football at Murray. His sister, one year ahead of him at Murray, had a car to get both of them to school. When sister and car left for college this fall, Tupa’i switched schools. As required, he informed Murray coach Dan Aragon he wanted to play football for Taylorsville, but the coach said no. Aragon claims Tupa’i was making an illegal switch purely for athletic reasons but, as revealed in an earlier hearing on the matter, the coach also stated concerns—which linger but have not been proven—that Tupa’i had been using alcohol and/or drugs.

And in Utah’s system for administering high school athletics, a coach’s protest carries great weight in keeping a player off the field.

Tupa’i denies drinking or doing drugs. He says the real reason Murray’s coach objected to his transfer is, “If he can’t have me, neither can anyone else.”

“I love this sport so much, I can’t just up and leave it,” Tupa’i says. “This is what has been keeping me out of trouble ever since I started high school. I love football, but I’m not counting on that. I’m counting on getting an education and a good job. Me not playing affects my whole life.”

His mother, Anna Tupa’i, is suing in Utah’s 3rd District Court to have the decision reversed. She says Jared’s sitting out this final year all but kills his chances of getting a college scholarship. BYU, for instance, showed interest in Jared last year but told him he would need to play his senior year for serious consideration.

For now, Jared attends all football practices at Taylorsville but doesn’t suit up. He can’t play, having been ruled ineligible by the Utah High School Activities Association (UHSAA), in a hearing where Murray High School administrators protested his move.

Jared thinks he’s a victim of a system that assumes recruiting is behind transfers of high school athletes. For their part, UHSAA leaders say the association has been burned so often by overzealous parents determined to showcase their children’s talent, that it doesn’t have much choice.

But, as Jared points out, transferring to Taylorsville, which isn’t a traditional prep powerhouse, isn’t likely to showcase his talents. “If I was transferring for football, I’d go to Bingham or Skyline,” he says.

Jared was tripped up by an UHSAA rule that limits when students can change schools to live with a parent after divorce. If a student athlete makes the change at the time the divorce paperwork goes through, the switch is OK. Any time after, however, it is assumed the move is a “sham.”

Ironically, Jared lives a 10-minute walk from Taylorsville High School and sits on the sidelines watching practice by students whose parents live in other school districts. A 2005 legislative audit of high school athlete transfers found, in several high school football teams, including Cottonwood and Skyline, more than 20 percent of players live outside their schools’ boundaries.

That isn’t surprising. Since the early 1990s, Utah students entering high school have been free to choose any high school they want under “open enrollment.” But the free-for-all that has ensued makes it close to impossible for the UHSAA to police against recruiting by high school coaches, the ostensible reason the transfer rules exist in the first place, according to Mark Van Wagoner, UHSAA attorney. Recruiting happens all the time, he says. Students transfer from team to team; it is the rare case like Jared’s when anything is done about it.

The UHSAA doesn’t have money for enforcement, so it relies on high school principals and coaches to blow the whistle. If no administrator complains about a transfer, the UHSAA doesn’t get involved.

And here is where the plot thickens. Previous hearings at the UHSAA showed no evidence that Taylorsville had recruited Jared away. Murray coach Dan Aragon protested the school switch because, he told the UHSAA, Jared began talking about changing schools only after the coach requested a drug and alcohol screening. Murray has random drug testing of athletes; Taylorsville does not.

Jared disputes that, saying that the coach was upset he was missing summer football practices and leapt to the conclusion he had been partying. The real reason, Jared said, was that he had taken a summer job installing sprinklers to pay down debts. He says he informed Murray’s coach about the conflict before practices began. He said he did not show up for a requested drug test because it conflicted with football practice at Taylorsville, where he had already begun taking summer courses.

In any case, the adult-generated gossip about Jared still hangs in the air, and the chances he’ll win an athletic scholarship anywhere grow slimmer the longer he sits out.

Aragon did not respond to a request from City Weekly to discuss Jared’s situation.

But the case caused quite a stir on the Deseret Morning News electronic comment board, following a Sept. 14 story by sports writer Amy Donaldson. Even Jared joined in, writing “I didn’t go to practice that much because I had to work to help out my mom on her bills and also mine, I had bills from Murray High School and a court fine for a car accedent [sic], those were the reasons I missed ... I didn’t miss because I didn’t want to go!!!! I don’t have the money to pay for college that’s why I want to play so I can earn a scholarship to get a free education so it will help me in my future.”

Meanwhile, lawyer Van Wagoner defends the UHSAA’s decision. Testimony at an earlier hearing suggested Jared was unhappy with the Murray coaching situation. And Jared moved in with his mother too late to meet the association’s narrow divorce exception, a rule adopted, Van Wagoner says, after a high school student switched back and forth between his mother’s and father’s home competing in multiple seasons at different schools.

A decision in the case is due in 3rd District Court Oct. 1. Van Wagoner notes that no parent or student has ever succeeded in reversing a transfer denial.

Anna Tupa’i can’t make sense of her son’s situation. “He stands beside his so-called ‘team,’ stands there and watches these kids,” she says. “I’m sure it’s frustrating. I thought it was about the kids. Is it that bad for my son to go to Murray while his sister finishes school? It doesn’t make sense.”
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