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High school athletics under a microscope

Dozens of sports teams in North Carolina ran afoul of player-eligibility rules, forcing them to forfeit games.

By Special to The Christian Science Monitor / April 1, 2003



HIGH POINT, N.C.

As coaches huddle and athletes grunt through their warm-ups, it seems just another day in the life of the Red Raiders of Andrews High School.

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Its teams are known as perennial champions here in central North Carolina and hundreds of student athletes, most wearing the school's fiery-red uniforms, swarm the fields after school.

But behind the scenes of distinctive discipline of its lanky athletes, a disturbing question has arisen: Did the school's drive for success on the playing field lure it into the biggest high school sports scandal in the state's history?

Since February, Andrews's teams have had to forfeit games and return nearly $30,000 in prize money from the fall season. On a basketball team stacked with seniors and expected to compete for the state championship, only one player was actually eligible to play. The football team's conference trophy was yanked from a packed display case because many football players had violated eligibility requirements. Only the tennis and cross-country teams were unaffected.

It's a scandal that has shaken players, fans, and coaches across the district. Eleven of the 14 high schools in Guilford County - a furnituremaking enclave in the low hills here - had to scratch entire seasons. Investigations revealed that dozens of athletes had participated despite low grades and excessive absences.

For now, the problems here in North Carolina seem centered on schools in Guilford County.

Poor record-keeping, along with a policy that expects schools to monitor their own players' eligibility, combined with a win-at-all-costs culture, may all have played roles in the controversy.

Another big factor is the high stakes today for high school athletes - as the NBA seeks future Kobes and Shaqs on parquets across the country. Some critics say this scandal indicates a growing difficulty in balancing sports with academics for teen athletes.

"Some of the problems we have now in high school sports mirror the problems they have at the professional and college level," says Tim Flannery, the associate director of the National Federation of State High School Associations in Indianapolis. "We're all progressing down the same path," he adds. "Winning is becoming the most important thing."

Coaches here say the travails for Andrews and other Guilford County schools are simply a local problem, not indicative of a deeper trend in American schools. They point to a recent study that says high school athletes have half the number of absences of nonathletes.

"There's usually a very close relationship between coaches and the athletic association, and that's why these things don't usually develop," says Dick Galiette, executive director of the US High School Athletic Coaches Association in Hamden, Conn. "Academic standards are still very rigid and nobody fools around with this."

For Scott, a junior varsity swimmer (who didn't want his last name used), both coaches and students had become lackadaisical about eligibility requirements, even as student athletes here are allowed 13 unexcused absences - almost twice as many as other districts.

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