Private Schools Looking Abroad For Talented Basketball Players
For a small school, the Academy for Community Education always had a decent basketball program. The boys' team at the alternative high school in Coral Gables had been competitive against other small Miami-area high schools. It even made it to the Florida state finals in 1995.
But several seasons ago, the academy's fans started seeing the Jaguars practically run off the court by some longtime private school rivals.
First there was Northwest Christian Academy, in Miami, with a 1997 squad led by a 6- foot-8-inch exchange student from Ivory Coast and another standout from Ukraine.
Then, in the 1999 season, Champagnat Catholic High School, in Hialeah, won the state 2-A championship, beating Northwest Christian in the final, with both teams led by powerful players from overseas. This past season was even worse for the 160-student Coral Gables alternative school, the only public school in the 1-A division— for the smallest schools, enrolling up to 341 students in grades 10-12. More of its private school competitors, as well as teams from larger private schools, boasted foreign players in what seemed to be an international arms race.
Finally, it all proved too much for Andrea L. Loring, the principal of the 160-student Academy for Community Education. She submitted a complaint to the state interscholastic athletic association. "We saw foreign students who appeared to be older playing on these 1-A teams," Ms. Loring said. "It was not my job or right to check records, but they appeared overage, and it appeared to be an uneven playing field."
The Florida High School Activities Association, in turn, found enough serious violations that it changed its rules and expelled the first school from its association in 60 years.
Few would question the presence of international students in U.S. schools by itself. But seasoned observers see the recent influx of foreign talent as part of a nationwide trend among private high schools that have, or aspire to have, elite basketball programs. Accompanying the trend have been complaints that some schools are breaking the rules by using recruiters and various inducements to land promising athletes.
Recruiting athletes—whether from the next town or from overseas—is uniformly against the rules for high school interscholastic athletics. Athletes must also meet specific age and academic-eligibility criteria.
W. Daniel Boyd, the associate commissioner of the Florida high school association, said he suspects that numerous dodges have cropped up recently in his state. "Obviously, there's an influx of international athletes," he said. "Some of our member schools are sending delegations—maybe delegations of one—in the Caribbean, South America, Central America. They are actively soliciting services of athletes and bringing them in on I-20 visas. We're very much concerned about it."
Eyeing the Pros
The proliferation of high school players from abroad is related to the flow of overseas talent into U.S. basketball at the college and professional levels, experts say.
Nearly 20 percent of the current players in the National Basketball Association are from other countries. And colleges and universities have stepped up organized overseas recruiting.
Most European countries have highly developed basketball programs, said David I. Benezra, who runs Recruiting USA, a college-basketball scouting service in Los Angeles. He said other countries have pools of top athletes who are eager to pursue college scholarships and professional glory in the United States. And by acclimating themselves to the U.S. basketball culture in high school, foreign teenagers can find seasoning in the more aggressive American style of the game and receive academic and language preparation for college.
"High schools also want to get some high-profile basketball talent and improve," Mr. Benezra said. "If you want to attract more full-pay students, to get some attention, sports is generally the fastest way to get there. You may have the world's youngest prodigy as a classical pianist, but no one's going to notice," he said.
Other sports draw international players here, but basketball is especially tempting to recruiters because of its popularity and the fact that a standout player will likely make a greater impact on a five-person playing squad than on the much larger teams fielded in football or soccer.
Private schools are more likely than public schools to seek foreign athletes because of U.S. restrictions on student visas. The J-1 visa used by most international student- exchange programs bars students or institutions from selecting one another. But the F-1, which schools apply for using an I-20 form, does allow the school to choose specific students. The F-1 requires that the student or the institution pay all tuition and housing expenses in advance, a luxury that public schools are not permitted.
Private schools also face less public scrutiny than public schools do, said Art Taylor, the associate director of the Center for the Study of Sport in Society at Northeastern University in Boston. And in the case of international students, ineligible status can easily be obscured by an academic transcript that has been translated incorrectly, he said.
But a few public schools did find themselves in trouble this past school year for using international athletes in violation of eligibility rules.
In New Jersey, Newark's East Side High School was ready to field a boys' basketball team of five foreign players until the New Jersey State Interscholastic Athletic Association declared four of them ineligible because they had not gone through the association's waiver process to determine eligibility. Their case was never adjudicated, because the students failed to show up at a hearing of the state school athletic association, but the coach lost his job.
In Southern California, Artesia High School's team was stripped of its victories and this year's Southern Section Division II-A championship for having two overage students—both among its top players—from the Dominican Republic and Iceland, who had false information on their student visas, officials said.
In no state, though, did international players stir up as much controversy as in Florida.
The team of Miami Christian Academy, one of the Academy for Community Education's rivals, boasted six students from the Dominican Republic who, according to Miami newspaper reports, had played on that country's junior national team. The newspapers also reported that a school booster traveled to the Dominican Republic to recruit the youths, who lived together while attending the school.
But Miami Christian Principal Lorena Morrison denied that the boys were recruited and said she knew nothing about their off-campus living arrangements. She said she knew they had played ball together. "I was told they played on a [boys'] club, like an [Amateur Athletic Union] team," she said. The students received a 50 percent cut in their tuition, for which they qualified based on need, she said.
The most dominant team in 1-A, however, was from the Berkshire School. On Berkshire's boys' team, 14 of the 16 players carried foreign passports—from Byelorussia, Yugoslavia, and Panama, among other countries. The team rolled up a 34-2 record this past season while beating teams from 1-A to 6-A, the division for the state's largest high schools.
Berkshire's success was even more striking because the 400-student pre-K-12 school in Homestead, Fla., didn't even have a basketball team from 1993, after Hurricane Andrew devastated the area, until 1997. "Until this past year, we used to take our junior varsity down to play them, they had such weak team," Ms. Loring said. "Suddenly, they had this powerhouse team that looked like they were competition for the [NBA's] Miami Heat."
At first, Ms. Loring said, her school "grinned and beared it" when playing the other teams. But the new disparity on the basketball court spoiled the friendly rivalries of the past.
"A school we had a healthy competitive relationship with for years became the dreaded team," she said. "Parents questioned me about why I was choosing to play teams, when their boys were half the size [of the other players]. Parents became concerned about safety."
Then Ms. Loring's athletic director told her that at the Berkshire School he had been approached by Julie Zapata Lyon, who offered, for a fee of $2,000, to find outstanding international basketball players for his team.
Ms. Loring called Ms. Lyon, whose business card said she was based in Plymouth, Minn. Ms. Lyon repeated the offer and said she would come to the team's practices to try to address its weaknesses, according to Ms. Loring. Ms. Lyon said the school would be expected to waive tuition and cover the students' room and board, Ms. Loring said.
Vanessa Relli-Moreau, the associate director of the Council on Standards for International Educational Travel, in Alexandria, Va., said the group has heard complaints about Ms. Lyon shopping international students to schools elsewhere. "My understanding is that the same thing has happened in a couple of other states," she said. But Ms. Relli-Moreau said that she hadn't heard of any other professional high school recruiters. "This woman is a special case," she said.
As of late last week,Ms. Lyon had not responded to repeated requests by Education Week for an interview.
In February, after her conversation with Ms. Lyon, Ms. Loring complained to the Florida High School Activities Association and asked for an investigation.
The association sent Mr. Boyd, the FHSAA's associate commissioner, to examine the records of five schools. After visiting them and reviewing players' passports, birth certificates, and transcripts, Mr. Boyd determined that on the Miami Christian team, three of the six Dominican nationals were in their fourth year of scholastic play after 9th grade, one more season than permitted by the Florida association's rules. The three players were ruled ineligible, and all the games in which they had played forfeited. The other three Dominicans were allowed to keep playing, and the team was allowed to compete in the 1-A championship, which it won. But the association may take the championship victory away.
Northwest Christian Academy was found to have fielded an "overtime" player, in this case an American who had transferred from out of state with an altered transcript, Mr. Boyd said. The school forfeited all games won while the player was on the team.
Both schools were also fined $1,500 and will be barred from the state tournament series in 2001.
At Berkshire, Mr. Boyd pored over the players' records, but found that many of them had not been translated into English; he had to take them to linguists at the University of Florida. Once translated, the records indicated—"suspiciously," Mr. Boyd said—that several of the international players would turn 19 years and 9 months old, or the maximum age allowable, shortly after the state tournament ended.
Something else caught Mr. Boyd's eye. "I kept seeing the name Julie Lyon with several of the student athletes' papers," he said. The principal told Mr. Boyd that Ms. Lyon had helped arrange for eight boys and four girls, from Panama, Cameroon, and Eastern Europe, to attend the school.
Several days later, just after the start of the state tournament, Florida's sports commissioner ruled all the students brought in by Ms. Lyon ineligible "based on the fact that she had recruited them for Berkshire," Mr. Boyd said. He said the association did not rule on whether the students were overage because the "undue influence" finding was enough to keep them out of the state tournament.
Mr. Boyd found no violations at Champagnat Catholic, but it, along with Northwest Catholic and Berkshire, had another common feature that, while technically allowed, seemed contrary to the spirit of the rules: All, or nearly all, the students who boarded there were basketball players. At Berkshire, 15 members of the boys' varsity basketball team were living in a four-bedroom house owned by the school; five members of the girls' varsity team lived together in another house.
At the other school he investigated—Ms. Loring's academy—Mr. Boyd found no infractions.
Berkshire's Principal L.R. Farrell filed a lawsuit against the association and won an injunction permitting his team to continue in the tournament. On an expedited appeal by the association, the state's Third District Court of Appeal in Tallahassee overrode the injunction, and Berkshire was barred from competing in the boys' and girls' state basketball tournaments.
In May, the commissioner expelled Berkshire from the association, the first expulsion in 60 years, and barred the school from competition for five years. Mr. Boyd said the punishment was based largely on the school's refusal to follow the group's bylaws in taking it to court. The FHSAA is now suing the school to recover $12,000 in legal expenses.
Mr. Farrell said the expulsion was not based on any proof of wrongdoing. "The allegations were that our students were too old and that they didn't have a B-plus average, but they couldn't find anything. So they came up with this Mickey Mouse thing they called 'undue influence,'" he said.
Mr. Farrell said complaints by the Academy for Community Education and other schools were motivated by envy. "We're the best team in town. A lot of other schools that have programs—they were asked to send in information on us," he maintained. "It's blackmail."
But Mr. Farrell failed to appear as scheduled before the association's board at it's mid-June meeting to appeal his school's expulsion, Mr. Boyd said.
Northwest Christian did appeal its punishment, but was denied. "I guarantee we don't have any recruiting here," Principal Fred Rogers said later in an interview. He said his school has students from 43 different countries, and would naturally have international students on its athletic teams. "We've never had a stacked team," he added.
As a result of this year's problems, the Florida activities association has tightened its rules. Beginning next year, it will limit students' eligibility to eight consecutive semesters following 8th grade, require student transcripts to be translated into English "by a reputable concern," and bar schools from using housing primarily for athletes.
Despite the imposition of stricter measures, talented foreign players will continue to flout eligibility rules to compete at U.S. high schools, several observers say, especially when they are grabbing the attention of college basketball teams here.
Five Berkshire players have received basketball scholarships to attend National Collegiate Athletic Association Division I schools.
And in May, some of the international players who figured in the Florida investigation—including from Berkshire—were members of "Team Breakdown," the surprise victor of the Spiece Run 'N Slam Classic at Purdue University in Indiana, an annual regional basketball tournament attended by college scouts.
The team, which led a field of 72 teams, was coached by Rolando DeLa Barrera, Berkshire's coach.
"It was a very talented team," said Mr. Benezra of Recruiting USA.
Vol. 19, Issue 42, Pages 1,16-17