Runner Dropped for Stripping Job Can Rejoin Team

TIMES STAFF WRITER

After her attorney threatened a lawsuit, a Cal State Fullerton student who was kicked off the cross-country and track teams for working as a stripper can rejoin the squad if she meets the usual eligibility requirements.

And that could be a more difficult hurdle than the ones she clears during the steeplechase.

Coach John Elders told Leilani Rios in January 2000 that she had a choice--quit stripping or stop running. Her part-time job at the Flamingo Theater in Anaheim, he told her, violated the university's five-paragraph Athletics Code of Conduct, which says, "Most importantly, [team members] give everyone who sees them a positive image of Titan student-athletes.

Rios, 21, received a letter this week from Robert Palmer, vice president of student services, inviting her back. University system lawyers decided the constitutionally protected activity of stripping would be a tough one to take on in court.

"While we believe our coaches should be the ones interpreting the university's athletes code of conduct, our attorneys have advised us that may not be possible," said CSUF spokeswoman Paula Selleck, "especially when the activity is constitutionally protected, such as exotic dancing."

According to Joseph Tacopina, Rios' attorney, Coach Elders has said that stripping goes against his moral credo as a Christian. Elders could not be reached for response.

"[Cal State Fullerton] tried to deflect the conduct of the coach by citing this code of athletic conduct," Tacopina said.

But the university ultimately could prevail if Rios cannot regain her eligibility.

Rios' husband, Wayne Hurtado, said that at the moment, his wife would be ineligible because of academic problems that he says stemmed from her being kicked off the team.

Rios, who could not be reached for comment, lacks sufficient credits to maintain her eligibility under the standards of the National Collegiate Athletic Assn., which governs intercollegiate sports.

"We have to go back with the school and the NCAA and see if we can get that year credited back to her," said Hurtado, 31. "Cal State Fullerton is admitting wrong by kicking her off the team, so the NCAA should have no problem."

NCAA officials could not be reached late Friday.

Rios has about a C average, her attorney said.

But she could have another eligibility problem.

The notoriety over the dispute that has landed her on TV shows and in newspaper and magazine articles, also has attracted the attention of Playboy.

At present she can be observed on Playboy.com sans her running uniform. Two weeks ago, her husband said, the magazine took photos for a feature for which Rios was paid an undisclosed sum.

If Rios' pay from Playboy was related to her participation as an athlete, it could be a violation of NCAA rules, said John Hauscarriague, assistant athletic director for administration at UC Irvine.

Rios did not receive an athletic scholarship to compete at Cal State Fullerton, and she was ranked in the middle of the university's cross-country runners. She finished 60th in the Big West Conference championships in 1999.

Tacopina said word of Rios' stripping job got around campus after four members of the Cal State Fullerton baseball team at the Flamingo Theater noticed her.

Tacopina said his client never used her college affiliation as part of her act. The baseball players, he said, were wearing their hats and one of them was wearing a school practice jersey. The athletes also were drinking and stuffing money into the dancers' bikini bottoms, he said.

No baseball players have been disciplined.

Once the Rios situation went public, baseball coach George Horton asked his players if any had gone to the Flamingo, spokeswoman Selleck said. No one would admit visiting the theater.

The coach explained the behavior code to his team and told them that going to strip clubs was inappropriate, Selleck said.

Rios has no plans to make stripping a career, Tacopina said, but is using it to help finance her college education. Her husband of 15 months is a foreman at a supermarket milk plant.

Hurtado said his wife works a couple of days a week, adding, "She makes as much in a day as some people make in a week."

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