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Judge denies T.A. Cunningham’s request, lineman still can’t play for Los Alamitos

Los Alamitos' T.A. Cunningham, No. 99, tries to pump up the home crowd at a game against Basha (Arizona) Sept. 3.
Los Alamitos’ T.A. Cunningham, wearing No. 99, tries to pump up the home crowd at a game against Basha (Arizona) on Sept. 3.
(Luca Evans / Los Angeles Times)
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Los Alamitos High defensive linemen T.A. Cunningham, one of the top college football prospects in the country, is facing the possibility of not playing at all this season after transferring from Georgia during the summer.

On Thursday, an Orange County Superior Court judge denied the 6-foot-6, 265-pound junior’s request for an emergency restraining order, which would’ve blocked the California Interscholastic Federation‘s Southern Section from deeming him ineligible.

“Every week, I’m 100% sure he’s going to get cleared,” Los Alamitos coach Ray Fenton said Sept. 8. “And he still sits.”

Originally, the CIF denied Cunningham’s request for a hardship waiver that would allow him to avoid sitting out for a period as required by transfer rules. A complaint filed Tuesday argues the decision was “based on the grounds that [Cunningham] does not meet the definition of a ‘homeless student.’ ”

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Cunningham’s attorney Michael Caspino, known for representing prospective college athletes with name, image and likeness endorsement deals, told The Times the Southern Section has since dropped its argument that the transfer was not valid.

Now, they’re opening an investigation to determine whether “undue influence” was used to steer Cunningham to Los Alamitos. Judge Layne H. Melzer ruled Thursday that the Southern Section has until Sept. 27 to complete an undue influence investigation, examining whether the Los Alamitos coaches had any sway on Cunningham transferring to the school.

“I just don’t see them finding anything,” Caspino told The Times.

However, Cunningham might have difficulty being cleared even if no undue influence is found given CIF’s “Athletically-Motivated Valid Change of Residence” guidelines, which state: “A student may not be eligible to participate at the varsity level if there is evidence the move was athletically motivated or the student enrolled in that school in whole or in part for athletic reasons.”

CIF executive director Ron Nocetti told The Times, “We don’t comment on legal matters.”

If Cunningham is blocked from playing this season, it would reiterate the high school governing body’s emphasis on enforcing its rules limiting how high school athletes can cash in on NIL deals. The CIF has emphasized high schools cannot be involved in brokering or featured in NIL deals.

The complaint seeking to overturn the Southern Section’s decision stated Cunningham’s family was evicted in June 2022, after which Cunningham was introduced to Justin Giangrande, a co-founder of marketing agency Levels Sports Group.

According to the petition, Giangrande and co-founder Chris Flores, a well-known youth coach in Orange County, set up a plan for Cunningham to move to California to earn NIL deals to support his family. The court filing includes screenshots of text messages it states were exchanged by Cunningham’s father, Flores and Levels co-founder Justin Giangrande promising Cunningham’s family housing in California.

The injunction request states Cunningham moved to Orange County in June without his mother and father and has since been sleeping on the couches of teammates. On Tuesday, Caspino also filed a petition from Laura Hart, a parent who attested Cunningham had been staying with her “from time to time.”

The request states his NIL revenue opportunities fell apart after Flores was charged with molesting a 15-year-old girl.

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Los Alamitos quarterback Malachi Nelson and receiver Makai Lemon, who have also been affiliated with Levels, are committed to play at USC.

Cunningham was ranked as the No. 14 overall prospect in the country by Rivals.com and has 59 scholarship offers from schools that include USC and UCLA.

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