Wednesday, March 08, 2006

Colonial Defense

As a person with a strong allegiance to George Washington University Basketball, I think it is appropriate for me to comment on the recent articles (1, 2, 3, 4) in the Washington Post about the questionable practices of a prep school that seems to exist only to provide basketball players assistance in becoming academically eligible to play in college. The articles also deal with this as a larger trend but specifically discuss two significant players on the GW team, senior Omar Williams and sophomore Maureece Rice. The articles are long and somewhat repetitive, but worth reading closely because this is a complex issue.

Let me begin by saying that I worked in the athletic department at GW for seven years, I have worked for GW on a freelance basis in the last two years, and I have some good friends who still work there. I also worked in athletics at Johns Hopkins for five years and played a varsity sport and, as a student, worked in the athletic department at Cornell. At these schools and others, I have met many players, coaches and administrators, and, by and large, they are people committed to winning by competing as hard as they can without compromising their own or their institution's integrity.

Now, I am almost certain I would not say the same thing about Darryl Schofield, the basketball coach and only full-time teacher at Lutheran Christian Academy, the "school" exposed by these articles. He strikes me as the number one bad guy in this story. He has made false statements about Lutheran Christian - which has no connection to any church, Lutheran, Christian or otherwise - and his own educational background. This is a guy who clearly manipulated the system to attract academically deficient basketball players and get them into college. No details have emerged as to how he profited from these shenanigans, but I will not be shocked if and when they do. Based on these articles, I would not believe anything he told me that could not be supported with notarized documents and even then, I would remain skeptical.

The NCAA Clearinghouse also bears some blame in this story. The notion that they would accept handwritten SAT scores as proof of a student meeting eligibility standards is preposterous, and the fact that Lutheran Christian was an approved educational institution is equally unbelievable. Any defense about their inability to properly monitor and evaluate the system is invalid. The NCAA currently has an 11-year, six billion-dollar deal with CBS for the rights to televise the men's basketball tournament. Last year NCAA president Myles Brand was paid $870,000. That leaves about $544,584,585.45 to find out if a school is anything more than a room in a rec center where basketball players hang out between practices and games. I think I could get that done and still have enough money left over for some fresh paint and new carpet for the NCAA offices in Indianapolis.

There is still enough blame left to put some on GW's administration, its coaches and the players who took advantage of a flawed system. The Williams and Rice have managed to progress academically - Williams is scheduled to graduate on time this spring - is a tribute to them and to the academic support unit at GW, which works with all the student-athletes, paying particular attention to the basketball players. University Vice President Bob Chernak has conceded that GW should have examined the details of Williams' high school records more closely, but the University administration remains steadfast in its support of the basketball program and athletic department. Chernak and athletic director Jack Kvancz are well-versed in NCAA policy (GW has self-reported minor violations in the past), and both are too smart and experienced to have knowingly tried to slip one past the NCAA, but there is a bit of a "don't ask, don't tell" aroma to this situation that does not pass the smell test completely.

I have met and spoken with Karl Hobbs and Omar Williams, as well as other members of the basketball team, in the course of writing articles for GW and another publications. Hobbs is convincing when he says that he will only bring kids to GW who he thinks can succeed there academically. In his five years, there have been no questions about the academic performance of any of his players. Many of the players whom he has brought to GW have not been on the lists of other major college basketball programs for a variety of reasons: injuries, late-blooming talent, and, yes, academic uncertainty. In many cases, Hobbs has signed players later in the recruiting process than the big-time programs. Teams like Duke sign their players early because they can; Hobbs waits, not because he wants to, but because he has to. He has to make sure that a player has recovered or will recover from an injury that knocked him off the other schools' recruiting list, he has to go back and see that the kid has grown two inches or developed his defensive skills, or he has to wait until the student has gotten the SAT or ACT score he needs to become eligible.

This is a risky way to go about building a basketball program, but it has worked for GW. In an interview, Omar Williams speaks confidently and with a quiet sense of humor; he expresses great appreciation for the experience he has had at GW. I don't know firsthand what he is like in the classroom, but I have met enough college athletes to say with complete confidence that he belongs there. I am not denying that he may have come to GW under questionable circumstances, but he has received an education and earned his degree, which the last time I checked, was the business of a university.

The NCAA has warned players that they should be careful in choosing prep schools and avoid so-called "diploma mills," but no players who are currently eligible will be affected by the results of the NCAA's investigation. American Collegiate Testing, Inc, which administers the ACT, has already decertified Lutheran Christian as a test center and the Educational Testing Service which oversees the SAT is reconsidering as well. This kind of action will put shady characters like Darryl Schofield out of business.

Competitors will always seek to gain an advantage within the rules and sometimes outside of them. In the past, plenty of schools have engaged in practices that were allowed at the time but are not any more. GW has not been shown to have broken any NCAA regulations, but I would think the University will take a few extra steps in the future to avoid an embarrassing and costly scandal.

For those GW fans who are complaining about unfair or unbalanced reporting or the timing of the article, get used to it. GW is a top 10 team, and this is the scrutiny that comes with that lofty perch. Go ahead and write your letters to the editor and spread the good word about GW, but the vicious name-calling and whiny complaining will only make your enemies sound justified in their criticisms. Besides it's got to be healthier to use your energy in positive support of the team with the best record in college basketball.


Rick said...

A nice and well balanced approach as usual Bill. Not wanting to be too sports savy, I have one question that was renewed last Saturday watching the Philadelphia City championship game. How did Maureece Rice get out of Philly ? A payback to DC for Delonte West coming north ? Rice doesn't like practicing at 5 AM ? Several pretty good coaches didn't recognize talent ? Or there's something not right at that prep school ? But, didn't Duke and NC just cherry pick from another of those Philly prep schools ?
It's only going to get more interesting with Philly public schools being split up into smaller entities and even more recruitment from the suburbs. And, I'll bet the same thing is going on in DC and Baltimore.
Well, Mr Swift I got a solution to the problem. You want student-athletes than no, No scholarships for athletes. Let the sneaker companies fund leagues for 4 years to develop athletes for the pros.

John said...

Unfortunately, these bogus prep schools seem to be some peoples' answer to the NCAA clearinghouse. They exposed a big one in Florida that specialized in getting football players eligible. It was a bit of a story in our state because some of the recent Auburn stars went through there. The funny thing is, the story just goes away. The bogus school is put out of business, but nobody seems to get in trouble for these things. On to the next scheme, I guess.

Bill Fitzgerald said...

The question of how Rice got out of Philly is one a lot of people are asking. He broke Wilt's HS scoring record, so you would think he could go anywhere. Hobbs told me Rice was grateful to have a chance at GW. It doesn't all add up, and that's from someone who knows and respects the administration at GW. As for your solution, there is way too much money going to the schools for the athletes to get nothing.
You are absolutely right. The "schools" are just another way for a coach to tie himself to players. No surprise that Scofield was an AAU coach before he opened his school.