For the past two years, Brett Bowden has suited up in full football uniform, helmet, pads and all, and stood on the sidelines with the Hobbton High School varsity football team in North Carolina. As Yahoo’s Prep Rally website notes, he’s earned “the right to lead the team onto the field and run a touchdown play after every game” and scored an official touchdown at one game. Bowden is 19 years old now and still in school; students with disabilities have the right to a free and appropriate public education until they are 21 years old according to the Individuals with Disabilities Act (IDEA). But due to his age, the North Carolina High School Athletic Association (NCHSAA) has ruled that he is too old to play in high school sports.
Bowden is still allowed to participate as he has in the past, but not able to wear his full uniform. Said NCHSAA Commissioner Davis Whitfield in a statement:
“I want to be clear that the student-athlete has not been ‘kicked off the team.’ Brett Bowden could still be a part of the team, lead his team on the field, wear his jersey and be with his teammates, including some of the post-game activities he has done in the past.
“The only thing that he cannot do now that he could do before is dress out in full uniform, since a student must be eligible to be dressed for a contest. He is over the age limit based on the eligibility rules, and this State Board of Education policy is one we are not allowed to set aside.”
According to parenting website Babble, a state organization is now deciding whether or not an exception to the rule can be made in Bowden’s case. His sister, Taylor Bowden, has started a Facebook page, Let Brett Bowden Play Ball, and many in the Hobbton community and elsewhere — over 64,000 people — have voiced their support. Bowden’s mother, Pat Bowsen, has noted that, to her son, not being able to suit up in full uniform will say to him that he is not really a part of the team:
“Brett don’t see that he has Down Syndrome. Brett wants just to be one of those guys, out there dressed, thinking that he is a football player, feeling like he’s a football player.”
Commenters at WWAY 3‘s website had differing reactions to Bowden’s situation. Many have said that he should be allowed to suit up; even though he is older than many high school students, he is still a student. Others, including some commenters who note they are relatives of individuals with disabilities or work with them, say that it’s important for Bowden and others to know that there are rules and limits, and that it’s necessary to abide by them. Some have even said that, should an exception be made for Bowden, might other 19-year-olds seek a similar injunction to play football longer to enhance their college prospects?
Bowden certainly isn’t seeking an exception about the eligibility rules for anything other than a wish to be part of the the Hobbton High School varsity football team. His desire to be on the team is for all the right reasons, to participate with teammates and friends; to do something that means a lot to him and that he is thrilled to be a part of. But will North Carolina state officials acknowledge all this?
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