The fight continues for Special Olympic athletes over 19 to play in Unified Sports. Even though these athletes stay in high school past this age, they can no longer compete in high school sports.
According to the New York Public High School Athletic Association law, no student who turns 19 before their senior year of high school can compete in high school sports.
Margaret Smeeding, a mother of a Special Olympic athlete, told us back in May she’s been fighting to change this rule. But, the decision lies with the New York state Education Commissioner.
With the news of the commissioner, Dr. MaryEllen Elia, stepping down at the end of the month, Smeeding is worried the rule will be put on the backburner and her 19-year-old son Zach won’t be able to compete for the second year in a row.
"They will have an interim commissioner and they will have their hands full. And that means Zach will miss out again and that’s just wrong. It’s unfair. I called her office literally daily, lots of messages left, never a returned call," Smeeding said.
Zach participated in Unified basketball, in which the season takes place in the spring. When he found out last year he was too old, it took a toll on him.
"It made me really depressed,” Zach said. "It was a big opportunity for me.”
Last year, he had to settle for cheering on the sidelines and he may have to do that again this year if the proposal isn’t passed by the fall.
Dr. Robert Zayas, executive director at the New York state Public High School Athletic Association, says his organization has been advocating to change the cut-off age from 19 to 21 since last November and he will continue to push for this when a new commissioner steps in.
"We are going to make sure other priorities don't supersede this priority,” Zayas said. “We are continuing to have discussions to make sure it stays on their radar."
Zayas says discussions have been positive, but he says the proposed rule has the potential to impact other rules.
"There are students participating that are not part of the unified program that sometimes have to exceed the age of 19 and we want to make sure that rule is not in jeopardy,” Zayas said. “So, I understand why the state is taking its time.”
For now, the proposal is at a standstill until someone new takes the office of commissioner. Until then, kids like Zach could miss out.
"It would be a lot of disappointment, a rough year,” Zach said. “If they did what they are hoping to do then that would change. I wouldn’t be mad, it would be happiness."
We reached out to the office of the commissioner, but have not received a statement back. Smeeding encourages others to contact the office of the commissioner. People can call the office at (518) 474-3852.