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After political scrutiny over eligibility rules, WIAA clears student-athlete to compete

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After political scrutiny over eligibility rules, WIAA clears student-athlete to compete

The situation drew political statements from state and national legislators, leading to a change in eligibility status for a Wisconsin student-athlete.

May 20, 2024 12:51 PM CDT

By: Jimmie Kaska

CAMPBELLSPORT, Wis. (WAUK) – A student-athlete who was not eligible to compete in Wisconsin Interscholastic Athletic Association events was granted eligibility by the organization last week.

The eligibility question of Josh Onwunili, a senior at Campbellsport High School, drew national media attention and had state legislators lobbying the WIAA to reconsider its rules on transfer eligibility.

“Everybody’s been so supportive,” Onwunili said in a video announcing that he was cleared to compete. “Without everybody’s help, at the very beginning, I wouldn’t be in this, so I really want to say thank you.”

“In all of the political slander that goes around social media these days, what I found really cool was media and local government getting together to get the required documentation that the WIAA required,” Derek Toshner, head track and field coach at Campbellsport, said. “I have a renewed belief in our media and a renewed belief in government. I can’t believe how fast they got this done.”

Toshner had been providing regular updates on the situation on his social media pages, appearing on local and national media programs to talk about Onwunili’s eligibility status.

Onwunili began his high school career in Campbellsport, a village of about 2,000 people northwest of Milwaukee and southeast of Fond du Lac, as a freshman. Then, he moved to Ghana with his parents, who are missionaries, for two years before returning to Wisconsin for his senior year. His parents remained in Ghana while Onwunili returned to Campbellsport to finish high school and prepare for college.

The WIAA ruled Onwunili ineligible due to its rules on amateur eligibility and said in a statement that the transfer rule had been correctly applied.

The rule reads: “A student who transfers from any school into a member school will be subject to the transfer rules for one calendar year, unless the transfer is made necessary by a total and complete change in residence by parent(s). The calendar year (365 days) will be determined from a student’s first day of attendance at the new school.”

“Do we live in a democracy or dictatorship?” Toshner said on social media before the WIAA cleared Onwunili to compete. “The WIAA needs to change how they look at this rule, or more kids will have a negative experience.”

Several state legislators put out statements urging the WIAA to reconsider. Rep. Cindi Duchow said in a statement that “Given that the WIAA continues to demonstrate a concerning history of poor decision making, some of my colleagues and I in the legislature are currently looking at other options of how to regulate high school sports in Wisconsin.”

Three legislators signed on to an open letter to the WIAA in an attempt to get officials to change their mind.

“This ruling wrongly punishes a student for something beyond his control,” Sen. Duey Stroebel said on social media. “The WIAA exists to support student athletes, but this decision denies a student the chance to culminate his senior season at the highest level.”

Rep. Jerry O’Conner called the situation “unjust” and questioned the decision, suggesting that there were other motives in denying eligibility.

“Is this a slight because his parents are Christian missionaries?,” O’Conner said in a statement. “Is this a power move by a board of directors who are more concerned about their turf than the amateur turf Josh wants to compete on?”

WIAA track and field regional meets begin Monday across the state, although weather may impact some of the events. Onwunili will compete for Campbellsport in the 4×100 meter relay, 100 meter dash, and 200 meter dash. He has the fastest preliminary times in all three events.

The WIAA is a non-profit organization governed by its member schools. Its Board of Control consists of school officials around the state.

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