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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.

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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.

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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."