Eligibility Problems Rock N.C. District

By Staff

Athletic Management, 15.4, June/July 2003, http://www.momentummedia.com/articles/am/am1504/wuncproblems.htm

It started with a complaint that sounded like sour grapes: an accusation that athletes at one North Carolina high school weren’t being held to the same attendance standards as other students. But once district administrators investigated, they not only found ineligible athletes at the school in question—they also found ineligible athletes at 10 of the other 13 high schools in the district.

Concerned over rumblings that similar violations could be found throughout the entire state, the North Carolina High School Athletic Association (NCHSAA) asked all of its members to voluntarily check their eligibility records. When the dust finally settled, teams from 36 schools saw their seasons wiped from the record books and athletic administrators were again reminded of the importance of proper policy and procedure.

The storm was centered in Guilford County, which includes the cities of Greensboro and High Point. Seven Guilford County schools had multiple violations while four schools had one team with ineligible athletes. Three schools had no eligibility violations.

“We had a new principal at one of the schools, and the students started asking if there would continue to be a different set of rules for athletes than for everyone else,” Guilford County Schools Superintendent Terry Grier says. “So we decided to audit one sport and found such widespread violations that we audited the whole school. We found five athletic teams that had kids who were ineligible because of attendance. We thought we should look at our 13 other high schools and found widespread ineligibility, primarily centered around attendance.”

North Carolina’s attendance policy requires that students attend 85 percent of their classes to remain eligible for interscholastic athletics. This amounts to no more 13.5 absent days during a typical 90-day semester.

“Frankly, we had some coaches who didn’t check,” Grier says. “They just assumed that if someone had passed five subjects, they must not have been absent more than 13 days. Then, we had some folks who checked, but checked the wrong records. We only have one school of the 11 where we felt coaches knew that these students were not eligible because of attendance, but had gone to the principal and sought permission to play them anyway. The rest were a matter of neglecting to check.

“These are good coaches and good people,” continues Grier, a former coach himself who became district superintendent three years ago. “But I really think [not checking the records] was part of the culture here. It was something that didn’t appear to be important.”

Under NCHSAA rules, the use of ineligible players results in a $500 fine (reduced by half if the violations are self-reported), return of all playoff revenues earned by the team, and the forfeiture of all the games where an ineligible player dressed for the contest, as well as team and individual honors. Guilford is expected to return just under $17,000 in playoff revenues, along with paying $7,250 in fines.

The shock waves were felt throughout North Carolina. Schools were checking their records even before the state association issued its request. Of 350 schools in the association, 287 reported no eligibility violations while 27 had not filed reports by the March 30 deadline. Only 25 schools outside Guilford County reported any violations, which falls in line with the number typically reported in a year, according to NCHSAA Associate Executive Director Rick Strunk. Only one other district reported multiple violations.

“The good news is that there wasn’t rampant negligence,” Strunk says. “There was a problem in one school system that they have addressed. We’re disappointed anytime there’s a problem like this, but one of the comments I heard was, ‘If there’s a rat in the barn in Guilford County, there’s a rat everywhere.’ Fortunately, that doesn’t appear to be the case.”

In Guilford County, a few coaches and athletic directors will not have their contracts renewed next year. Some will have their salary supplements reduced by $250 for each fine while others received letters of direction or reprimand. Now the focus has turned to making sure the barn stays clean.

“We’re going to have written procedures that we expect everyone to follow,” Grier says. “Coaches and athletic directors are both going to have to sign the eligibility slips. And we’re no longer going to allow an individual to be both an athletic director and a coach, because of the checks and balances involved. There will be zero tolerance if it happens again.”

Even schools that did not have any violations are examining their policies and procedures. According to Strunk, some athletic departments are working more closely with school personnel who operate the computer-based student information management system that reports data to the state educational department. These systems can often easily provide a list of all students with more than a specified number of absences.

“It’s important not to make assumptions about eligibility,” Strunk says. “Don’t simply ask the student or make a cursory glance—it has to be checked. And have a system of double-checks, so if one person misses something, another person will catch it.”

The staff and students in Guilford have learned the cost of not checking and double-checking. One football team saw a 13-2 season and state semi-final appearance turn into a 0-15 mark, while a boys’ soccer team went from a 16-6-3 state quarterfinal season to a 0-25 record.

“There’s been a lot of pain associated with these revelations,” Grier says. “Most of the students have been understanding that mistakes were made, but it has angered a number of them, and it has upset some parents.

“I know a lot of coaches teach full loads and time is an issue,” Grier continues. “I tell them, ‘You owe it to yourself as a professional, you owe it to your student-athletes and the school and the community to take that extra step to make sure.’ If anything good can come out of this, it will be an understanding that we have an ethical duty to check the records. Perhaps our experience will help others to see what can happen when those checks aren’t made.”