A district court judge decided to allow a star running back for Cleveland High School to participate in last Saturday’s Class 6A state championship game even though the school district had said he was ineligible due to receiving a concussion in the playoff game the week before.
As it turns out, coaches only put him in for one play, but school officials and the New Mexico Activities Association are worried the judge’s decision could have an effect on the state’s concussion law protocol.
Shawn Nieto, the Storm’s junior starting running back for both of the school’s first two playoff games, suffered a concussion – according to Cleveland – in the second half of a Nov. 28 semifinal playoff game at Mayfield following a head-to-head hit.
“Our trainer (Jeff Archuleta) identified him being unconscious for a period of time. That’s an automatic concussion (protocol),” said Rio Rancho Public Schools athletic director Bruce Carver.
Nieto, who did not return to that game, argued that he did not lose consciousness. He further argued that he was not advised to get an independent medical evaluation, and that he was allowed to drive home from Cleveland after the team returned to the school from Las Cruces that night.
The family had a private examination conducted of the player a few days later. That doctor, listed in a court filing as Dr. Karen Ortiz, said Nieto “exhibited normal cognitive ability” and she concluded that it was “unlikely” that Nieto had suffered a brain injury, according to documents.
Cleveland informed Nieto that he would not play in the state final against Eldorado, basing the decision on the standard, minimum “one week” waiting period, per the law, that must occur before an athlete may return to action after receiving a concussion.
The family went to court Friday – first in Sandoval County, but after learning that the court was closing at noon and thus would be unable to get an emergency hearing, attorneys filed in Bernalillo County – and received a temporary restraining order against Rio Rancho Public Schools. Nieto would suffer irreparable harm if he was kept off the field, the TRO request maintained.
No one from RRPS appeared for the court hearing in Albuquerque late Friday afternoon, so no proof was offered that Nieto had, in fact, suffered a concussion. Consequently, Judge Alan Malott ruled Nieto could participate.
“The suit wasn’t brought in the right county, in our opinion,” RRPS public information officer Beth Pendergrass said. Asked why the district failed to show up for the hearing, she said, “We weren’t notified about the change of venue in time to be present.”
The New Mexico Activities Association was listed as a co-defendant along with RRPS and was in court Friday to back up Rio Rancho Public Schools, executive director Sally Marquez said. The NMAA did not argue in front of the judge, but does plan to challenge the court’s decision to grant the TRO.
“We will fight for the law,” Marquez said, adding that the NMAA doesn’t believe a court should have allowed Nieto to play. Marquez was emphatic that the NMAA is not trying to retroactively find Nieto to be ineligible, thereby leaving Cleveland vulnerable to a forfeit.
“We just want to make sure the rule stands up, that this doesn’t happen again,” she said, adding that she wants the TRO overturned to dissuade others.
The family, through its attorneys, is declining comment.
Cleveland coaches kept Nieto off the field during the championship game on Saturday, with one exception. He was inserted late in the fourth quarter, on a kickoff team following the final score of the game, a Cleveland field goal with 2:23 remaining.
Landry Hayes started at running back Saturday, rushing for more than 200 yards and four touchdowns in Cleveland’s 48-35 victory. He had started at the position early in the season, but was sidelined due to an injury. He returned for the championship game.
“Ultimately, the decision was I was just looking out for Shawn’s safety,” Storm head coach Heath Ridenour said, adding that he felt it wasn’t worth the risk that Nieto might be injured if Cleveland handed him the ball.
One of the results of Nieto challenging his diagnosis in court is how the state’s concussion law might be interpreted.
There is no specific language that dictates when the one-week protocol begins. The NMAA said it believes the one week is defined as seven days that begin the day following an injury.
In this case, that would be the Sunday after Cleveland beat Mayfield in the semifinals. Carver said Cleveland’s trainer also felt strongly that the seven-day waiting period starts the following day.
Nieto’s attorneys argued that the concussion protocol period would have concluded before the title game.
As for the harm Nieto was caused because he didn’t play, the family stated that his chances at a college scholarship are put in jeopardy since this was such a high-profile event. Nieto is listed as a 5-foot-4, 135-pound running back on MaxPreps.com. He ran for 931 yards and 18 touchdowns during the season.
Carver said he wants to revise the wording in the Rio Rancho district handbook to be far more specific about when the seven-day period begins. The state law is five years old.
“You could see why a kid would want to play in a state championship game, and you want to do the right thing,” Carver said. “But our trainer is a very experienced trainer. They (the family) were looking for a loophole.”