- Associated Press - Friday, May 9, 2014

BATON ROUGE, La. (AP) - A campaign to keep a Ugandan refugee on the football team at a Baton Rouge high school has shifted into a legislative debate at the Louisiana Capitol.

Lawmakers are fighting to keep Clement Mubungirwa on the field after family friends sought help in overturning a Louisiana High School Athletic Association decision.

The association refused in March, with an 11-8 vote, to waive a rule that says students turning 19 before September cannot play sports. Mubungirwa’s 19th birthday is in July. The association says it’s never granted an exception for the age requirements because it raises safety and fairness concerns.

Lawmakers say Mubungirwa’s war-torn life story deserves special consideration.

Rep. Neil Abramson, D-New Orleans, has gone so far as to threaten legislation that would that would deny LHSAA use of the Louisiana Superdome for championships unless it lets Mubungirwa play.

Born in war-torn Uganda, Mubungirwa and his family fled on foot after rebel forces murdered his father. Mubungirwa, his mom and his younger siblings endured poisoning, abuse, malnutrition and severe illness at a refugee camp.

“When I think, I cry,” said his mother, Mesika, about Uganda.

They emigrated to the U.S. when Mubungirwa was 12, eventually settling in Baton Rouge. After being held back twice, Mubungirwa is doing well academically and will be a senior at Episcopal High School this fall.

Mubungirwa said he loves the intensity of football and the meaningful friendships, describing his teammates as brothers. “It’s like a bond,” he said.

However, the LHSAA has stood firm by its decision to ban him from the team next year, despite pressure from the school, friends and now lawmakers.

Abramson and Sen. Dan Claitor, R-Baton Rouge, have filed bills that aim to keep Mubungirwa on the team.

Claitor proposed a requirement that the LHSAA must consult a third party arbitrator to decide eligibility, giving poorer students who cannot afford to sue a chance to challenge decisions. The Senate-backed proposal awaits debate on the House floor.

Abramson’s proposal threatens more sweeping action, seeking to bar use of the Superdome for high school championship games, unless Mubungirwa plays next school year.

Lawmakers have suggested Abramson’s proposal was extreme.

“It’s almost like extortion,” Rep. Eddie Lambert, a Republican from Gonzales, said on the House floor.

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