By BRIAN WOODSON
Bluefield Daily Telegraph
Lykel Collier has been a vital cog in a three-year run of success by the Bluefield Beavers basketball team that culminated in a state championship last March.
With all five starters back, there was a definite sense that the Beavers could do it again.
Those hopes have been diminished somewhat after Collier was ruled ineligible to play his senior season, a move that Collier’s mother, Kelinda Gray, feels is unfair, and local attorney Brian Cochran agrees.
“I don’t know what the turnout will be of this situation, hopefully in the end he gets to play for Bluefield,” Gray said. “That is what we are hoping and praying for, but if he has to go to another school and go somewhere and play, he has to do what he has to do.”
“It is frustrating, it is probably one of the most unfair processes that I have ever seen the way they handle things up there with the SSAC,” added Cochran, an attorney with Brewster, Morhous and Cameron in Bluefield. “I completely disagree with their decision.”
At issue is WVSSAC Rule 5.3A, as read by Executive Director Gary Ray, “A student held back one year in the sixth, seventh or eighth grade without failing shall lose the fourth year of eligibility after entering the ninth grade.”
Collier attended Bluefield Middle School and played basketball as an eighth grader, but family issues forced Collier to live with friends during the spring semester. He was pulled out of BMS and attended Mountaineer Baptist Academy in Green Valley.
“We provided them with a tremendous amount of information that Lykel was homeless at the time, legally homeless, he was living outside the family and according to the federal rules, that falls within the definition of being homeless,” Cochran said. “Lykel had a lot of different situations going on in his life at the time. This family he was living with pulled him out of the public school system and put him in a private school about 12 weeks before the end of the eighth grade year.”
Cochran, who said Gray knew about the WVSSAC rule when the decision was made, feels like she made the right choice to have him repeat eighth grade after missing three months of eighth grade instruction.
“The evidence before them leaned strongly that it absolutely was not athletically motivated, the mother was aware of this rule when she made the decision,” Cochran said. “If you are going to hold your kid back for athletic reasons, you definitely wouldn’t do it if you knew he wasn’t going to be able to play.
“She made the right decision for him academically at the time...I would have made the same decision myself if it was my kid. If my kid missed 12 weeks of school I would not let him go on to the high school so the academic decision that she made is now being held against her.”
Gray brought him back home in time for the following school year, and decided — along with his father — to have him repeat eighth grade after an assessment was made that Collier was still at a seventh grade level.
“By that time I didn’t think Lykel was ready (for high school),” Gray said. “There was a lot going on with us so I held him back so when he went back to the middle school in the following year when he was supposed to have been in the ninth, he was in the eighth again.
“There was a lot going on with the family so I felt like maybe get that one on one, even though he is a smart kid, that is the decision that me and his father had made.”
Therein lies the problem. Ray said the ruling made by the WVSSAC simply follows the letter of the law.
“My responsibility as executive director is to make a ruling of inquiry based on what the rule says,” said Ray, who refused to discuss specific cases. “The only one that can grant a waiver of that rule if they need to is the board of directors, that is a 10-member board made up of principals and appointed individuals.
“Then if the person is not satisfied with that decision, then we also have what is called a review board.”
Gray did both of those. She said the Monday after Bluefield won the state title in March, the WVSSAC received an anonymous phone call and email — which she has never seen — advising them of Collier’s situation.
Cochran said that was basically the extent of the investigation into the matter by the WVSSAC.
“It is their responsibility, by code they are supposed to investigate these things. I have been a lawyer now for six years or so, it is absolutely the worst investigation I have ever seen in my life,” Cochran said. “I can’t imagine any investigation being worst than what they have done.
“I just can’t express enough my disappointment with the SSAC their investigation and inquiries into these matters and how inconsistent they are.”
Gray received a letter from the WVSSAC in July confirming rumors she had heard that Collier would be ineligible as a senior. The family went to Parkersburg to state their case, but the decision to make Collier ineligible was upheld.
That was followed by an appeal process on Sept. 19, with Gray and Collier accompanied this time by Cochran. Once again, by a vote of 4-1, the appeal had been denied, effectively ending the process for the WVSSAC.
“From our administrative standpoint, that is correct ,” Ray said.
“They have a rule that says that they grant a kid a waiver of any rule if they believe the rule fails to accomplish the purpose for which it was intended or if it is a hardship for this kid,” Cochran said. “They have no definition of what that is, they don’t define what a hardship is, they don’t define what fails to accomplish the purpose.
“The Supreme Court says this rule, hold back without failing rule, is to prevent athletic redshirting and it says that the SSAC is unreasonable if they don’t look into other circumstances as to why a kid may hold back for academic reasons or social reasons.”
Cochran said the reasons Gray held back Collier had nothing to do with athletics. In fact, Collier didn’t play basketball at BMS in his second year in the eighth grade.
“We felt like that Lykel’s mother’s decision was based solely on academic reasons and we felt like his case was a textbook case of someone who was deserving a ruling of the waiver of that rule,” Cochran said. “There is nothing at all in the record, it is based entirely in the record and there is absolutely no evidence at all in front of this board of the SSAC, zero evidence that Lykel held back for athletic reasons, zero.”
Cochran, who was told Collier’s was the first such case for the WVSSAC in Ray’s 13 years with the organization, said he found a similar case in Wyoming County in 2007 in which a player received a waiver and was allowed to play.
“We argued that the SSAC should be fair and consistent in their rulings and provided them based on their own situation,” Cochran said. “Lykel’s situation was only the second case involving this rule in last 13 years.
“We provided them with the only previous case that they were able to provide us. We located and provided to them and told them they needed to apply the rules fairly and consistently and they still denied him the opportunity to play.”
The WVSSAC ruled on a similar case just last week, ruling Martinsburg quarterback Malique Watkins ineligible for the same reasons. However, the ruling was overturned by the Berkeley County Circuit Court, allowing him to play last week.
Such are the options available now to Collier.
“He has got a lot to think about and I can’t blame the kid,” Cochran said. “Whatever decision he makes I will support him 100 percent and I hope the community does too and I suspect that they will.”
According to Cochran, they could seek a similar injunction through the Mercer County court system, file a complaint with the West Virginia Human Rights Commission or Collier would be eligible to play in Virginia, but Gray said she can’t afford to make a move.
“We have got a couple of different options, and it is basically up to Lykel now on what he wants to do,” Cochran said. “He is going to get back with me as quick as he can, the most important thing for Lykel is for him to be able to play basketball somewhere this year and to continue to get a good education.”
Time is of the essence. Practice starts in less than a month and Collier must act quickly, either to play for the Beavers or perhaps, as Gray said, leave Bluefield and attend a private school to play basketball.
Colliers does have colleges interested in his services, but Gray understands those schools want him to play his senior year in high school.
All Collier wants to do is play basketball...for the Beavers.
“Lykel is more laid back, quiet and humble, I think he is upset, but he is really not showing it,” Gray said. “He is just quiet and laid back, he honestly can’t believe it.
“All this just to play ball. You won a state championship, even if you didn’t win the state championship, you are a humble kid, you are a good kid, you are phenomenal basketball player, no one wants to see that and it is just sad.”
—Contact Brian Woodson