A 16-year-old from Oconomowoc is shining light on an issue that is preventing student athletes all over Wisconsin from playing the sports they love this upcoming school year.
It got the attention of a state lawmaker, who is pushing for a new law.
“I couldn’t learn virtually, and my mental health was suffering,” said Blake Thelen. “I knew things had to change and I talked to my parents about it.”
This past January, in the middle of last school year, Thelen transferred from Oconomowoc High School to Lake Country Lutheran, less than 10 miles away, where classes were fully in-person.
“Once I transferred, it was my new home, and I made many friends,” Thelen said. “It’s been much better for me. I still see my friends from Oconomowoc High School, but this is just a better fit.”
But recently, when Thelen tried to sign up for Lake Country Lutheran’s football team, which starts practicing later this summer, he was told he can't play.
A rule set by the Wisconsin Interscholastic Athletic Association, or WIAA, says if a student athlete chooses to transfer mid school year, he or she can’t play sports at their new school for a full year.
“That rule is designed to prevent schools from forming super teams,” said Republican Senator John Jagler, who represents Wisconsin’s 13 District, which includes Oconomowoc. “Unless you switch schools for a specific reason, like your family changed addresses because of a job change, which there are waivers for. But there is no waiver covering the COVID-19 situation.”
Jagler does acknowledge that the WIAA made one rule change.
“The WIAA recognized these are unprecedented times, that caused a lot of kids to transfer schools, so they altered their waiver rule to say you can still play if you go back to your old school, but that’s not right,” Jagler said. “Like many of the students who transferred, Blake is thriving at his new school and should be able to play there. Let these kids play.”
In response, Jagler drafted a bill that passed the Wisconsin Senate Wednesday, after already passing the Assembly. It says any student who transferred last school year, or does so this upcoming school year, for reasons related to COVID-19, does not have to sit-out their sport for a year. It would expire after this upcoming school year.
Gov. Tony Evers would have to sign off on this, in order to make it law.
“Hopefully we won’t even need to go this route,” Jagler said. “I don’t need this to become law. I'm doing it for my constituents. The WIAA should just change their rule.”
WIAA’s Board of Control met Thursday and said they would talk about this issue, but they have not returned our calls asking if they plan to change their rule.
“The fact that I can’t play football is very hard,” Thelen said. “When I transferred, I didn’t know I wasn’t going to be able to play, and I’m sure I’m not alone.”
Thelen hopes the WIAA takes his story into consideration.