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

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.

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?

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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.

Although he still feels proud winning several meets, other swimmers were upset that the team had to forfeit most of their competitions and give back ribbons. All their efforts, it seemed, were for nothing.

Many of the athletes, especially the boys, had come to feel invincible in the school culture, Scott says. "We had a lot of people who didn't worry too much about skipping or being late to class."

What's more, after nearly 20 years of winning championships, the community now expects victories. The bleachers fill to the top at the stadium and gym, especially when teams go against old rivals.

But at the same time, fans of the programs have their own questions about the scandal.

Jesse Lowe, for one, has been a fan of the Red Raiders since the school opened. He still follows the teams' travails in the local papers. After all, the football team has won three state championships in the last 20 years.

But from friendships with coaches and teachers, Mr. Lowe knows that the pressures to win can get overwhelming - and that protocol is sometimes winked at by staff. "Sometimes one hand washes the other," he says.

But even the state athletic association, which writes eligibility rules, says most of the problems in Guilford County had to do with keeping track of student absences, says Rick Strunk, a spokesman for the North Carolina High School Athletic Association in Chapel Hill. And he points out that the schools them-selves reported their discrepancies, and voluntarily handed back their awards.

Most of the problems here at Andrews, investigators say, had to do with paperwork. Attendance-report discrepancies led to confusion on the coaches' part, some of whom assumed that a passing grade on a report card meant a student attended enough classes to play.

What's more, difficulties in keeping accurate attendance records also played into the breakdown. There was no intent to deceive, officials say: Ineligible players were often not even the best on the team.

"A lot of this happened on the junior- varsity level, and it wasn't always the top players," Mr. Strunk says.

Even as students and administrators are implicated in a scandal that has resulted in steep sanctions, it is the coaches, experts say, who have the ultimate responsibility to uphold standards, even when a championship is at stake.

"Some individuals start rationalizing that this is all about pro contracts and winning, and it really isn't," Mr. Flannery says in Indianapolis. "It's an activity where kids learn some valuable lessons of life that they can't learn out of a textbook. If we're getting away from that, then we'll really have more situations like this."

For now, athletic coordinators hope that the problems in Guilford County are quickly contained - and that coaches around the state, and indeed the country, take heed from the lessons of this case.

"A good program means that the coach is doing the right things, the kids are going to class, making grades, playing hard on the field, and being respectful," says John McGinnis, Memorial High School principal in Tulsa, Okla., and a sports ethics expert. "Winning isn't always a sign of success."

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