At 17 and a high school junior, Hannah Cunliffe of Federal Way has a season-best time of 11.53 seconds in the 100 meters, which is 10th nationally in the girls rankings compiled by the authoritative U.S. Track and Field News. Her seasonal best in the 200 is 23.45, also a top 10 number, albeit wind-aided.
But instead of dominating the state Class 2A, 3A and 4A high school track meet that began Friday afternoon at Tacoma’s Mount Tahoma High, Cunliffe watched from the stands. She spent the morning seeking, and failing to get, a temporary restraining order against the Washington Interscholastic Activities Association, which has been insisting for six months that she is ineligible for varsity competition.
The bewildering story played out Friday in the Maleng Regional Justice Center in Kent, where flustered King County Superior Court Judge Carol A. Schapira called it “crazy” that the case ended up her court within the hour of the first 100-meter prelims in Tacoma. She also lamented the “inches” of documents and testimony that accompanied the long fight. To Cunliffe, and on behalf of the court system, Schapira apologized to her “for the court calendar taking as long as it did.”
Nevertheless, Schapira denied the restraining order on the narrow grounds that Cunliffe’s last-minute entry into the two-heat field of 16 qualifiers “would be of benefit to Miss Cunliffe, but how it outweighs (the disruption to the meet) is not obvious to me,” she said. “I’m certainly sorry to impede or hurt a young person, but do we make up rules as we go?”
In fact, there are instances where the WIAA has created track prelim heats of six, six and five athletes to accommodate those who earlier met state meet-qualifying standards but were unable to perform at the district meets that feed the state fields. But the WIAA made no exception for Cunliffe because it claimed that she was a transfer student who had to sit out the season. A transfer — primarily because she was home-schooled.
That is where the story gets complicated.
The sit-out rule has long been a part of WIAA rules, as it has in NCAA rules, intended to impede the recruitment of students to schools for athletic reasons. Even though recruiting has gone on semi-clandestinely for years, and down to the middle-school level — and always among private schools beyond the WIAA’s reach — the rule is well-intended. But its application in the Cunliffe case seems a reach.
Home-schooled for years by her mother, Michele, and father, Mike, an accomplished track coach and former Washington State University long jumper, Cunliffe wanted to try public school. So she arranged to run track in ninth grade at Decatur, Federal Way HS’s district rival. But a disagreement at track practice with a teammate, purportedly about her home-school background, ended up in a scuffle that left Cunliffe spiked.
No action was taken by the head coach, Sam Hunt, who claimed in a WIAA hearing in March that he did not witness the incident. But a male teammate gave written testimony about the spiking, and the wounds were seen Cunliffe’s family members.
Hunt also was alleged to have made a remark about “homeschooled kids,” which he denied.
She left the program and returned to home schooling for 10th grade. Cunliffe, who has seven sisters and a brother, most of whom have been home-schooled, began supplementing her school work by taking classes from Odyssey Academy, an online school in Oregon, while running track for a local club team.
For her junior year, she wanted again to return to public school, and enrolled in the fall at Federal Way HS. She appealed in December for spring athletic eligibility based on hardship, a waiver process on the WIAA books to allow for unusual circumstances at the original school, such as family issues, personal conflicts or abuse.
Despite the evidence, a WIAA committee in February denied the hardship request, which was appealed by Cunliffe’s attorney, Kenyon Luce of Tacoma, a longtime advocate of student rights in WIAA cases. The appeal in March was heard by a hearing officer hired by the WIAA. Despite having the witness to the spiking available by phone to give testimony, the hearing officer ignored the opportunity and denied the appeal.
Cunliffe and her parents pursued the case outside the WIAA in King County Superior Court. But because Luce raised some constitutional issues such as a lack of due process, the WIAA requested the case be heard at the federal level, further delaying Cunliffe’s participation in the varsity track season now underway.
Luce withdrew the constitutional arguments in order to get the case remanded to Superior Court. But the first available date to hear the “emergency” request for a temporary restraining order was Friday — the opening day of the three-day state meet.
Despite the argument that hardship ruling ignored the facts, despite a plea to let Cunliffe participate even if she was later disqualified because of ineligibility, despite the fact that Cunliffe was not being recruited to the school — the purpose of the transfer rule — and despite the fact that no qualified athlete need be be bumped from the field to accommodate Cunliffe, Schapira ruled that preventing disruption to the meet was the greater good — even though the Cunliffe side had no influence over the federal and state court calendars.
“Certainly it would have been better for all to have more time to prepare,” said Schapira, who took no testimony from Cunliffe or others. “It would be extraordinary to make changes to the meet at this hour. The goals of the family need to be balanced against the needs of the public and the other athletes.
“This was a truly difficult question. She’s a talented athlete who has attended multiple schools entirely appropriately . . . I’m not saying that I agree with the WIAA, and I’m not saying (the case) isn’t important. But whether the WIAA is a fiefdom is something I am not able to resolve without testimony and more information.”
Whether the WIAA is a fiefdom certainly has been an open question for years in prep sports. The enormous increase in media outlets scouting high school sports, and the subsequent intense competition for scholarships to painfully expensive colleges, makes administering eligibility issues a near impossibility without a battalion of private detectives.
But this isn’t one of those cases. This was about fairness and common sense. Cunliffe is already a nationally ranked sprinter because she’s done well in meets as an independent or a club member. But the state high school track meet is a special event for any kid so qualified.
“She’s already a sprinter of national quality for her age group,” Tony Veney, former co-chair of USA Track and Field women’s sprint development, told the Seattle Times in 2011. “As long as she continues to maintain her focus, her enjoyment and stays healthy, in my mind there’s no doubt that she can be a top high-school athlete, a national-caliber collegiate athlete and an Olympian down the road.”
If that happens, it seems it will occur despite the WIAA, not because of it.