January 15, 2013 • Athletic Administration

Playing by the rules

States say high schools and their coaches need to be more vigilant in preventing illegal transfers and recruiting tactics

The next time a parent or summer league coach calls you up to offer the services of the region’s top young athletes, you may want to think twice about how you respond. There’s more at stake than wins and losses.

Illegal recruiting and questionable transfers across high school athletics is nothing new, but those practices have garnered more attention in recent years. As state associations grapple with growing numbers of student-athletes jumping schools, some are hoping programs take matters into their own hands by cracking down on unethical behavior among coaches.

That model is taking shape in Georgia, where self-regulation by high schools is a promising sign institutions are willing to fight the problem at ground level. That may lead to fewer sanctions and prevent coaches from risking their careers at the hands of a win-at-all-costs culture.

“We are getting more and more administrators who have gotten the bigger picture,” says Ralph Swearngin, executive director of the Georgia High School Association (GHSA). “There has to be some accountability in the athletic department, and the school reputation is important.”

Encouraging self-regulation

Georgia’s rules don’t exactly require schools to investigate and resolve infractions on their own, but for the most part that was the case over the last year. This showed up when a handful of high school coaches lost their jobs after allegedly recruiting or facilitating transfers from other districts. Those schools initiated internal reviews and determined an appropriate punishment, only occasionally involving the GHSA in the investigation.

This is exactly the type of system Swearngin hopes becomes the norm in coming years. It shows that administrators are taking more seriously the damage resulting from unethical practices, and they’re becoming vigilant in condemning those actions without involvement at the state level. It spares schools and the state expenses related to a lengthy investigation, and it also helps maintain the institution’s image that it’s dedicated to operating respectable programs.

“Within the last year and a half, we’ve had more and more administrators who have conducted their own investigations and turned the results over to us,” Swearngin says. “In several of these cases, we’ve probably dug a little bit deeper, but a lot of the work is being done for us.

“I think more and more schools are recognizing the issues are part of their constituency and not necessarily part of their personnel.”

Georgia clearly distinguishes between recruiting and “undue influence”–the latter related to situations where coaches do not initiate contact but still play a role in facilitating transfers. Coaches are often caught in predicaments where parents or others outside the school district apply pressure to receive assistance in getting a student-athlete into their schools. The parents take no risk, because the state high school associations have no authority to punish them. The coaches, however, put their jobs and teaching certificates on the line if they’re found responsible for aiding a transfer.

It’s a difficult situation for coaches, Swearngin says. It becomes especially challenging when that incoming student-athlete could provide a significant boost to the program’s success. But coaches need to remember what’s at stake and avoid distractions from those on the outside who have their own special interests in mind.

“(Parents) cause a whole lot of the problems,” Swearngin says. “And of course coaches get on the bandwagon pretty quickly, especially in school districts where you could lose your job if you don’t have the degree of success they find acceptable. That’s where this win-at-any-cost mentality is pervasive … and we have to constantly keep our message that education-based athletics is a whole different world.”

Suffering the consequences

In a coach’s mind, nudging along a potential star athlete to attend their school could be harmless or, at the very worst, result in a slap on the wrist. But state associations want you to know the ripple effect from such behavior could leave a permanent stain on your career. It also could result in severe damage to your school.

Georgia’s bylaws state that any coach found guilty of recruiting has their case forwarded to the Professional Standards Commission of the Department of Education, which reviews their standing as an educator. That doesn’t include suspension/termination, or their current position (actions that can be taken by the school and not the GHSA) and embarrassing media attention, publicly disclosing the details of the coach’s questionable practices. Most other states have similar rules in place.

What the state associations are able to do is levy sanctions on programs associated with the violation, much like the way the NCAA deals with universities. That can include probation or bans from post-season play, setting back programs in their efforts to make progress and punishing student-athletes who had no part in the illegal recruiting.

Incidents also put schools at financial risk. In Georgia, when the state association’s investigation finds that an institution was guilty of a violation, that school is responsible for paying the costs associated with it. It’s the same result if the school legally challenges the state’s penalties. If the school loses in court, it’s responsible for all court costs.

“For a long period of time, if we hired a private investigator and sent our people out into the field, we carried all that cost,” Swearngin says. “So they know now there can be a financial penalty and to take a look at what’s going on a little more closely.”

Regardless, those continue to be among the most effective ways in dealing with coaches and programs that skirt the rules. Shawn Klein, a professor at Rockford College in Illinois who teaches a sports ethics course, says there will continue to be a number of individuals who commit unethical acts regardless of the potential sanctions. On the other hand, there are many who find the rules confusing, making compliance difficult.

“I don’t know that stricter policies or punishment would be that much more effective, because part of the problem is that there are so many rules and a lot of them are opaque,” Klein says. “It’s not clear at all. Education will help with that, but there are so many rules that schools, coaches and athletic directors have a pretty low expectation of whether they’re going to get caught.”

Education and clarification

There are a variety of ways to attack the problem, and many experts agree it starts with education. By dissecting the rules and disseminating key pieces of information to schools, coaches and organizations, you make sure that everyone has a clear understanding of what’s right and what’s wrong.

Swearngin and the GHSA organize regular clinics for coaches. He also meets with principals and superintendents to get the word out. One of the more popular choices to educate coaches in today’s digital age is to make that information available on the association’s website, but Swearngin says that can be a “double-edged sword.”

“We have found that by putting our bylaws out there, savvy parents and other people know our laws and know how to stay within the letter of the rule and skirt as close to the edge as they possibly can,” he says.

Klein agrees education is a reliable tool for cracking down on violations, but first he says there must be clarification of the rules already on the books. The NCAA, for example, has implemented a massive library of rules over the past 40 years, many of which were in response to specific incidents. The NCAA’s rules and regulations have now become so overwhelming and confusing, Klein says, that they’re not very clear in their intent.

The same could be said of high school associations. The most effective way to educate coaches could be to start by auditing the rules and determining what’s outdated, what’s unclear and what could best help others compete on an even playing field. To do that, Klein says, organizations must clearly determine their goals and what they’re trying to prevent. Then work backward.

“States must determine what rules are most effective and will help us achieve the end goal,” Klein says. “This allows the NCAA and other organizations to have the enforcement there so that there are fewer things to track and they don’t need an army of enforcers.

“One of the reasons a lot of coaches and schools might break the rules is because they say, ‘Other schools are doing it and if we’re not we’re at a disadvantage.’ They’re trying to keep up with the Joneses, so-to-speak. So if you have better enforcement and (clear regulations), that will tend to reduce some of that. Schools that want to play by the rules will do that.”

Swearngin isn’t so sure. He says many of Georgia’s rules are unchanged since the 1940s and 1950s, so there haven’t been significant additions that coaches would find difficult to comprehend. He believes the majority of coaches fully intend to stay within the parameters of the rules, but it’s the influence from those on the outside that lead them to do otherwise.

Coaches are instructed to focus on their own goals and responsibilities and not let the crowds on the outside determine the fates of their careers, especially when those parents or summer league coaches have nothing to risk and everything to gain by influencing program leaders.

“We constantly monitor our rules, but the fact is we wouldn’t need nearly as many if we didn’t have adults who get involved in manipulating the system,” he says.

Supporting stronger regulation

Alabama recently joined other states in instituting new rules aimed at curbing illegal recruiting and transferring. Beginning with the 2012 school year, any program found guilty of recruiting another student-athlete is put on restrictive probation and banned from the state playoffs for one year.

It’s not an unusual approach, and the Alabama High School Athletic Association Director of Communications Ron Ingram says it was mostly in response to AAU coaches who wanted to influence the system and get their athletes playing together at the same school.

“We don’t really have a major problem with it, but it is a problem whenever it occurs,” Ingram says. “If a school is found to have illegally recruited from another school, regardless of how it happens, that school is put on a one-year probation and the coach is suspended for a year. In most instances, that coach is probably not retained.”

Alabama’s new regulations were welcomed with “praise and clapping,” Ingram says.

The association has 409 schools in its membership, each of which participated in the survey and indicated the recruiting rule was something they wanted put in place. Of the state’s 32 voting districts, 29 of them supported the proposed restriction.

States like Ohio have embraced a much stricter regulation; forcing student-athletes who transfer to another school within a 50-mile radius sit out for one year. Arizona considered adopting the same rule in 2012, but consideration was postponed until the following year partly due to statewide disagreement.

The Ohio rule might be one that works for the Buckeye State, but Swearngin points out it’s one that won’t work everywhere due to geography. About 65 percent of the GHSA’s membership comes from the 17-county metro Atlanta area, so creating roadblocks to all schools within a 50-mile radius would severely limit a student’s options. Around the rest of the state, the closest school other than your own could be 80 miles away.

Each state should evaluate their own situation and demographics before adopting such limitations, and athletic directors and coaches should consider that when determining whether to support them. Athletic representatives at Arizona schools have recommended everything from a statewide ban to a restriction on schools within 15 miles. The debate is something many believe eventually creates a stronger system and one that better serves student-athletes and coaches throughout the state.

It’s possible that the bulk of student-athletes transfers are within reason, and that’s why states create an appeals process where leaving one school for another can be excused. The “hardship appeal” mostly applies to families who change jobs or are forced to leave their homes due to circumstances outside their control.

Understanding the system

Obeying a state’s rules on transfers and recruiting begins with understanding them, but coaches and athletic directors shouldn’t be shy about voicing their opinions.

Swearngin reminds members that the schools created the state association because they saw the need for regulation, so he’s committed to taking any action necessary to keep operations running smoothly and fairly.

“This is an association of the schools, for the schools and by the schools,” he says. “So most of the people are in consensus on what needs to be done.”

Ingram says Alabama has eight districts, and meetings are held annually with each to discuss matters like recruiting. They also organize a coaches school each summer, where more than 7,000 people are required to take a rules test to make sure they have a firm understanding of state regulations.

Even on a national level, the conversation is ongoing and states share ideas and brainstorm new practices for handling developing issues. Swearngin says association directors meet up to four times annually to exchange viewpoints.

Continuing success depends largely on one fundamental concept: focusing on education. That means encouraging everyone–athletic directors, principals, coaches and student-athletes–to obey the rules.

“It’s just a matter of the school determining if they’re going to do it right, and 99 percent of them do,” Ingram says. “We go to great lengths to show we’re about
education-based athletics, and sometimes it’s tough.”

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