Investigation of Bellevue HS football program paints a sad picture
May 4, 2016, 4:16 PM | Updated: May 5, 2016, 5:27 pm
That’s the dominant emotion evoked by the investigation of the allegations against Bellevue High School’s football program.
Not anger. Not outrage. Certainly not surprise.
Sadness. Sadness that adults can’t be trusted to apply common sense and fair play to the amateur competition of teenagers. Sadness that we now must add an NCAA-like regulatory function to high-school athletic departments and the state’s athletic association.
It is impossible to read through the 68-page report that was prepared for the WIAA and not see a concerted and underhanded effort to import talented football players into the district and keep them eligible. It’s equally difficult to read the report – and the contentious debate within the Bellevue School District on what to do about it – and see how it could have been prevented by the current system.
Read this story by T.J. Cotterill of The News Tribune. He put names with the cases of some of the athletes investigated in the report, from the one who listed his address as a P.O. Box to the one who appeared to be living on his own with his younger brother. There was another who moved with his mother into the home of a woman who worked at the strength-and-conditioning gym whose relationships with the Bellevue program has also been an issue.
This isn’t about piling on Bellevue. I covered the team for The Seattle Times when it won the first of its 11 state championships, and Butch Goncharoff was as impressive a high-school coach as I’ve ever came across. Kids benefited by playing for him, and I think that some of the current problems can be traced back to a well-intentioned desire to help high-school kids fulfill their potential by putting him in touch with this coach and his program. Goncharoff is a good man and he’s a great football coach.
But however well-intentioned those desires are, the result has been the creation of a football program that functions like a magnet across two different counties. And as much as the desire to help kids is mentioned, it’s worth mentioning that these students who are being helped just so happen to be talented enough football players that they are college recruits.
This isn’t how high-school sports are supposed to be. Not in my opinion. High-school sports are for the kids you grew up with and the occasional surprise arrival. It’s not for having a high-school senior claiming to live with an uncle attending Bellevue University when the kid very well may have been living on his own.
But now comes the question of what to do about it. Cotterill’s story points out that athletic directors would deem it unusual to go door-to-door to determine if a student-athlete’s living situation is on the up-and-up.
It’s true. Athletic directors shouldn’t have to do that. It seems invasive. Overly suspicious. It’s intruding on a student who you’d assume already is dealing with a transition.
But the investigation of Bellevue also shows that you can’t take paperwork at face value, either. Not if you’re going to pay anything other than lip service to the rules against recruiting and transferring for athletic reasons, and we haven’t even gotten into the booster club or donations made to a strip-mall school where a number of football players just so happened to study their way out of academic ineligibility.
It’s understandable if you’re mad. The allegations paint the picture of a public school that consistently benefited from out-of-district transfers of college recruits with suspicious paperwork. There was also the not-so-small matter of a booster club that augmented the salaries of coaches and helped fund a de facto academic assistance program that kept some key athletes academically eligible.
The fact that the Bellevue Booster Club’s response relied upon a narrow, lawyer-like argument that no rules were broken tells you everything you need to know. We can’t rely on common sense and a general willingness to recognize what is appropriate and allowed in high-school sports in order to prevent abuses. Not if we’re going to avoid situations like this in the future.
And that’s why the case makes me sad because I don’t know how you prevent this from happening again or at another school without beefing up the enforcement and compliance elements of high-school sports.