BUFFALO, N.Y. (WIVB) — Reigning AA football champion Bennett, the highest-ranked local team in the state’s largest classification, was rendered winless on Friday after Section VI ruled the Tigers used an ineligible player in its first six games.

Bennett coach Steve McDuffie also was suspended for Friday night’s game against Niagara Falls at All-High Stadium, due to NYSPHSAA rules stemming from a procedural error regarding transfer paperwork for a freshman player on the Bennett varsity team who played JV for Sweet Home as a middle school student last fall, said Michael House, assistant superintendent of athletics for Buffalo Public Schools.

“It’s very disappointing to learn that an entire team will be punished for a clerical error,” House said. “There was nothing unethical about this. This is a bonafide student at Lewis J. Bennett High School who lives in the City of Buffalo. Our coach, Steve McDuffie, is doing a great job. It’s very unfair that children are being punished in this way. It should be all about the students in the classroom and on the field. Not about procedural or clerical errors.”

Parents question why the league imposed the penalty this late in the season. They also say it is unfair to punish the entire team over a clerical error involving one student-athlete.

“Why did they wait until they were winning? They beat Clarence, they beat Orchard Park and they beat Lancaster,” Jackie Stepney, grandparent of a Bennett football player, said.

Friday night marked Senior Night for the Bennett Tigers, but some parents say it was disappointing that the news had to come out this week.

“My thought was why would they do that on Senior Night? If y’all knew this was going on, do it before this,” Dawn Miller, Bennett Football parent, added.

Philip Rumore, president of the Buffalo Teachers Federation, criticized Section VI and called for “a thorough investigation of a procedure that harshly punishes innocent victims and examples of the same punishments for the same infractions,” in an emailed statement.

“Yes, rules are rules,” Rumore stated. “However, considering the impact on the students on the football team and how the student who unknowingly was involved must feel, there should be a full investigation of when Section VI was notified, who notified them, how long it took to investigate this issue, etc.”

A message left with Section VI football chairman Jay Sirianni was not immediately returned.

The NYSPHAA Transfer Rule is the following:

A student who transfers without a corresponding change in residence of his/her parents (or other persons with whom the student has resided for at least six months prior) is ineligible to participate at the varsity level in any interscholastic athletic contest in a particular sport for a period of one (1) year if as a 9-12 student participated in that sport during the one (1) year period immediately preceding his/her transfer. A student’s period of ineligibility begins with the date of registration at the student’s new school. (May 2020) NOTE: Students in grades 7-10, shall be eligible to participate at the sub-varsity level and practice at all levels, while students in grades 11-12 shall be limited to practice (all levels) only. (July 2019). At no time during the one-year period of ineligibility at the varsity level should a student participate in a scrimmage or be an exhibition participant at the varsity level.

Students who transfer from any school to the public-school district of the residence of his/her parents (or other persons whom the student has resided for at least six months) or a private school within that district’s boundaries shall receive a waiver from the Transfer Rule. Such a transfer without penalty will only be permitted once in a high school career. Schools must submit the required transfer form to the Section office. Athletes are not permitted to practice before the form has been submitted. Athletes are not permitted to compete without approval.

NYSPHAA

Bennett’s Season

Bennett was 4-2 this season, leading its division at 2-0 following wins on the road against now unbeaten Lancaster and Orchard Park, and the Tigers ranked No. 10 in Class AA by the New York State Sportswriters Association poll.

With Bennett forfeiting its four wins, Lancaster, ranked 17th in the state, is 7-0 and 4-0 in Class AA, while No. 20 Orchard Park is 6-1 and 2-1 in division games. Lancaster won at Orchard Park on Friday night, securing the top seed for the Section VI playoffs.

With former St. Joe’s coach Bob O’Connor taking McDuffie’s place on Friday night, Bennett beat Niagara Falls, 42-14, can still be seeded as high as third in the five-team division with a win at Hutch-Tech next week.

Bennett’s Previous Hurdles

This is the latest in a series of misfortunes for the Bennett football program, House noted. BPS pushed back against Section VI’s attempt to put city schools in their own football league separate from the area’s other top AA programs in 2020. Bennett was eliminated from the section playoffs during the 2021 spring season while team activities were paused due to coronavirus infections. And last fall, Bennett was forced to play two playoff games in a five-day span after a state judge ruled that a virus outbreak would not force McQuaid Jesuit to forfeit a Far West Regional matchup with Bennett.

“There is a pattern of these instances coming up with Bennett,” House said. “It’s not fair. And we want to know why.”

Parents and family members of the athletes agree. They say it is unfair and they feel Bennett is being targeted.

“I do feel like if it was a suburban school it would not have been handled this way. Because we are inner city, because we are predominantly Black, African American, and Brown, I feel like we are targeted at this point and they don’t want to see us win,” Jalisa Conyers, whose brother plays for Bennett, told News 4. “I was very taken back because they boys have been working hard all year.”

Ferry District School Board Representative Sharon Belton-Cottman says she is circulated a petition to protest the action by NYSPHAA and Section VI. She says they have gone too far.

“This is an opportunity for our children to excel and feel good about themselves and they are trying to take that away? Not this time. We are going all the way to the top on this one,” Belton-Cottman said.

House speculated that Bennett’s recent success on the field might be the reason.

“John Wooden would say that the more success you have, the more criticism you receive,” House said.

House also raised questions about fairness in requiring BPS to meet the same paperwork filing standards as much smaller suburban school districts.

“Here in Buffalo, we have 18 high schools and hundreds of middle school students coming into our school every year,” he said. “It’s a lot easier to manage four to six students transferring into a suburban school each year.”

House said Section VI informed him of the insufficient disclosure on Tuesday, and that his office submitted the required paperwork soon after. BPS is looking into filing an appeal.

“Essentially the section expects districts to investigate and ask parents if students played ball at another school prior to coming in as a freshman,” House said. “They expected us to have that prior knowledge. And the question should be raised whether that is fair and equitable for all schools in New York.”

News of Bennett’s forfeited wins was first reported by The Buffalo News on Friday.

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Jonah Bronstein joined the News 4 roster in 2022 as a digital sports reporter. Read more of his work here.

Tara Lynch is a Buffalo native who joined the News 4 team as a reporter in 2022. She previously worked at WETM in Elmira, N.Y., a sister station of News 4. You can follow Tara on Facebook and Twitter and find more of her work here.