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Student With Disability Eligible for School, but Not Sports

A North Carolina high school football player with Down syndrome is off the team.

It's not because Brett Bowden can't play well—in fact he rarely played at all, according to several news reports.

But Mr. Bowden, 19, is too old to be a part of the team at Hobbton High School in Newton Grove, N.C., southeast of Raleigh. He's been on the team for two years.

Although the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act allows children to have educational services through their 22nd birthdays, that's not case for state rules about sports eligibility in many states.

That's in part because of safety issues; older players could be significantly stronger or larger than typical high-school-age students. Mr. Bowden will be a junior this year, which would have have been his third year on the team.

In North Carolina's case, a state board of education rule keeps players who turn 19 before Aug. 31 from playing, said Rick Strunk, associate commissioner of the North Carolina High School Athletic Association.

A hardship provision allows the NCHSAA to make exceptions when students' attendance or academic records don't meet requirements to play. But there are no exceptions for age, Mr. Strunk said. The rule about being ineligible to play at 19 has been on the books in North Carolina since 1974. Mr. Strunk added that in the last few years, the association rejected a request by a 19-year-old student who wanted to play, too. The rules apply to all sports, and all students, regardless of whether they have a disability.

"I hope we can get this worked out," Mr. Strunk told me. "We'd like to see him participate."

Nearly 17,000 people had signed onto a Facebook page called "Let Brett Bowden Play," as of Wednesday afternoon.

In reality, Mr. Bowden's participation involved suiting up for games. As a concession the NCHSAA said he may wear a football jersey and pants on the sidelines, but no football pads— to indicate he's not a player. Otherwise, ineligible players suited up for games could trigger another team to request a forfeit.

But that isn't enough for Mr. Bowden, or his family.

"It's not like Brett even plays; he just enjoys warming up with the team, practicing, putting on that number 11 jersey and pads," a statement from his family on the Facebook page reads. "This is what he looks forward to when school starts."

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