By Walter Villa – Special to St. Thomas University
One class changed her life.
Now, she is changing the lives of others.
St. Thomas University Benjamin L. Crump College of Law student, Karla V. Aponte, who was inspired by STU professor Dr. Siegfried Wiessner’s “Rule of Law” seminar, used what she learned in that class and recently helped create a bill that will compel the National Sports Federations in Puerto Rico to submit to financial transparency.
That bill has since become a law, which Aponte believes will result in more money going to young athletes who are in need of support.
Aponte, a 24-year-old native of Puerto Rico who is set to graduate in May, grew up playing soccer in her homeland. She was 13 when she began playing for the Puerto Rican junior national team.
“That’s when I started to live through all these injustices and all the corruption,” Aponte said. “For example, they made us pay for our own uniforms, which was crazy to me. When we went to Haiti for a tournament, my mom spent $600 for vaccines that I had to get. We didn’t even have a team doctor.”
To better understand the economic ins and outs of soccer, Aponte enrolled at FIU, majoring in Finance. This was in the aftermath of Hurricane Maria, which hit in September of 2017, leaving Aponte, her family, and millions of other Puerto Ricans without power for four months.
Two years later, Aponte graduated FIU Magna Cum Laude.
In the meantime, she was also serving as an intern at CONCACAF, the soccer governing body for national teams in North and Central America as well as the Caribbean.
While at CONCACAF, Aponte said she saw the amount of money that was going to the Puerto Rican soccer federation. Yet, much of that money was not reaching the athletes.
“I realized it was a legislative issue,” Aponte said, “and I knew I couldn’t just let it keep happening.”
To solve the problem, Aponte then decided to go to law school, choosing STU’s College of Law because, she said, they took her entire application into consideration.
“All the other law schools were focused on my LSAT score,” Aponte said. “It was right before the pandemic, and I only had one shot at it because they cancelled all subsequent LSATs. I was stuck with my first score, not that it was bad.
“STU, though, weighed who I am as a person into the application, and that’s what made me choose St. Thomas.”
Aponte started law school in the fall of 2020, but, because of COVID, she did her first year remotely, moving back in with her family in Puerto Rico to save on rent.
Once she started in-person learning at STU, she took the Rule of Law seminar.
Dr. Wiessner said his Rule of Law class asked each student to try to solve a societal problem, looking at the issue from all angles.
Students were tasked to look at past statutes, conflicting claims, politics, and other factors.
“At the end, our students come up with an appraisal,” Dr. Wiessner said. “The idea is to evaluate the current law and measure it against the standard of human dignity that should allow every individual to thrive.
“Laws should serve human beings and not the other way around.”
Aponte said she was initially reluctant to write her STU paper on the issue with the Puerto Rican soccer federation.
“(Dr. Wiessner) was the first person to believe in it and say ‘Do it. That’s a great topic,’” Aponte said. “He felt I had identified a real problem.
“Sometimes you only need one person to believe in you, and that was Professor Wiessner for me. If he hadn’t given me the go ahead for that topic, I wouldn’t have found all the things I uncovered.”
For example, Aponte discovered that every U.S. federal law must also apply to Puerto Rico. And, Aponte said, there was already a federal law for sports that should have been applying to Puerto Rico, which is a U.S. territory.
From there, Aponte talked to a friend, Edwin Jusino, who is a soccer historian in Puerto Rico. Jusino put her in touch with a Puerto Rico congressman, Rep. Eladio Cardona. They met in December of 2021, right after she had completed Dr. Weissner’s class.
During that meeting, Aponte showed the congressman the 30-page paper she wrote for Professor Weissner.
“I was shocked that (the congressman) took me seriously,” Aponte said. “He said he had been trying to fix this problem for years and hadn’t been able to achieve it previously.”
In January of 2022, Cardona introduced the bill to the House of Representatives. They held a public hearing, and Aponte was invited to depose.
Sara Rosario, the President of the Puerto Rican Olympic Committee, also spoke, voicing her opposition.
Aponte said the position of the Olympic Committee was that requiring auditing of their financing and that of the soccer federation was an undue burden.
“They claimed they didn’t make enough money to pay for the audits,” Aponte said.
“The hardest part was the emotional aspect. The president of the Olympic Committee has been working there longer than I’ve been alive. It was very intimidating.
“But I had invested too much into this emotionally. I couldn’t back out.”
Aponte proposed that the government handle the audit, particularly the branch that already assigned funds to oversee local municipalities.
On Dec. 18, 2022, the bill became law, passing unanimously through the House of Representatives and the Senate before being signed by the governor.
It was an incredible accomplishment for Aponte, but it was not a huge surprise for Dr. Weissner, who said her ex-student has a bright future as a societal change-maker.
“What Karla possesses is that she listens,” Professor Wiessner said. “She takes advice, which is very important, but she is also independent, following her own star.
“There is a great deal of courage and tenacity in that young lady. Without a doubt, Karla was the best student in my class.”