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Is this the future of transferring?

POSTED: July 2, 2011 8:18 p.m.
Photo Illustration by SCOTT ROGERS | The Times/

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When a new star volleyball player showed up on his daughter's team at Rockdale County High School, Bradley Fox smelled a rat.

When that player took his daughter's starting spot, he decided to take action.

Setting out to prove that the star player's family didn't actually live within the Rockdale school district, Fox acted as his own private investigator, gathering tax records, taking photos and pleading his case to officials at Rockdale County High.

When that failed to earn a satisfactory response, he took his evidence to the Georgia High School Association.

That's when he got results.

After the 2010 volleyball season, the GHSA ruled the star player's move into the Rockdale district had not been legitimate.

As a result, the Rockdale volleyball team was forced to vacate all victories in which the transfer student played.

The school was fined $300 for allowing an ineligible athlete to participate in interscholastic competitions, as well as an additional $100 for failure to submit the proper eligibility filing for a transfer student.

Rockdale appealed the ruling, but the GHSA upheld it.

Fox's persistence produced a rare case in which an illegitimate move by a student-athlete's family was brought to justice. However, many more illegitimate moves go unpunished.

The transferring of student-athletes from one school to another - often within the same school district - strictly for the purposes of playing for a specific coach or team is an issue across the country.

Critics say it divides the community and dulls the spirit of competition.

It's an especially hot issue in Hall and surrounding counties.

Hall County and Gainesville City schools have taken extra steps to ensure student-athlete moves are legitimate.

The GHSA recently voted in favor of modifying its bylaws regarding undue influence, and updated its transfer student eligibility form to include further questioning about a family's change of residence.

But will the measures taken by schools systems and the GHSA have the desired effect?

"There's only so much you can do when people are willing to be less than honest," Hall County Schools superintendent Will Schofield said.

Added East Hall football coach Bryan Gray, "The more rules you make, the more loopholes you'll have."

While it may be impossible to completely end the transferring of student-athletes from one school to another strictly for athletic purposes, understanding what the problems are could lead to families making better decisions in the future.

Undue influence
The GHSA defines undue influence as "the use of influence by any person connected directly or indirectly with a GHSA school to induce a student of any age to transfer from one school to another..." and can occur in many forms and fashions.

In fact, undue influence can occur without the involvement of a coach or school official.

Boosters and others not directly affiliated with a school are often the culprits, and up to this point, schools have been not held accountable for a booster's actions.

However, undue influence was an issue the GHSA addressed heavily when it voted to change its bylaws at an executive committee meeting in March.

The additions and amendments of the bylaws will take effect Aug. 1, 2012.

One significant addition to the bylaws now clearly defines who could be considered a booster.

Bylaw 1.73 states "A booster shall be considered to be an extension of the school and must abide by all rules applied to coaches and other school personnel."

The bylaw defines a booster as a member of the school's booster club, alumni, parents/guardians, relatives of a student or former student, financial donors or a donor of time and effort.

An amendment to 1.71b, concerning undue influence, adds social events specifically geared toward prospective athletes - such as a barbecue where a coach and player could be introduced - to its list of banned activities.

Schofield said it's been an ongoing effort spanning years making sure boosters realize they're connected to the school, but believes adding amendments to the GHSA constitution clearly defining a booster will have little impact.

"I appreciate the fact (the GHSA) is more articulate in (its) wording as far as defining who a booster is, but it's always been clear to me that anyone directly or indirectly connected with the school is a booster," Schofield said. "Anyone who argues (they didn't know who could be considered a booster) is being less than genuine.
"But let's be honest, until real changes are made, I'm not hopeful the behavior of people connected to the school will change."

Gainesville City Schools superintendent Merrianne Dyer said schools can only do so much to curtail the behavior of boosters.

"We try to disseminate what the rules are to everyone we can," Dyer said. "But there are a lot of responsibilities placed on the school that, in truth, we have little control of. Like cyber-bullying. We can control what goes on with the computers in our building, but not at home. So we just have to make everyone aware, at all times and all venues, of what the rules are."

More steps taken
There are other new bylaws addressing transfer concerns beyond undue influence.

A student-athlete who played for a coach at a former GHSA school can't follow that coach to a new GHSA school unless the student is a dependent of the coach.

Also, donated funds can't be set aside to pay for tuition of incoming students to private/city schools.

Form B, the transfer student eligibility form, also now includes nine questions geared to ensure a move is bona fide, such as making sure a property is made for sale at market value.

In some past cases, parents have set the price of their house well above market value to ensure it wouldn't be sold, and moved temporarily to a chosen district.

All information provided by the family in Form B must be verified by a school official.

GHSA executive director Dr. Ralph Swearngin said all amendments and new bylaws are part of an ongoing process to curtail the transfer of student-athletes.

"The feeling among folks is we had some unintended loopholes in regulations," Swearngin said. "I think the committee tried to identify what those were."

At a local level, the Hall County and Gainesville City school systems have taken extra measures to ensure moves are bona fide and that transfers were free of undue influence.

Before last school year, Hall County Schools issued a set of rules and protocols related to transfers and recruitment.

It established guidelines for schools to follow if a student-athlete moved from one Hall County school to another. The intent of the protocols is to establish transparency among the schools and families involved in the move.

Both Hall County and Gainesville City school systems make house visits to confirm Form B information is accurate.

"(Gainesville High principal Chris Mance) personally confirms residency with an unannounced home visit," Dyer said. "We've determined the best time to verify residency is early in the morning.

"We want to be diligent about it."

Will preventative measures work?
Despite the efforts of the GHSA and area school officials, student-athletes continue to move each year, often within a district.

Gray argues it will be difficult to prove undue influence, and Schofield said it's an unfortunate waste of funds to police adults with investigations, because adults are supposed to be truthful in the first place.

Both Schofield and Gray also share a widespread sentiment that while the GHSA is making changes to the bylaws, the rules or its penalties aren't strict enough.

Gray coached football at a California junior college in the 1990s and saw how school systems there handled transferring.

Penalties for student-athletes moving within a district - even if bona fide - resulted in losing at least a semester of eligibility, in some cases more.

He believes a similar rule should be in place in Georgia to prevent transferring within a district.

"All the schools here are so close to each other, then you throw a city and private school right in the middle of it," Gray said. "That's just leading to trouble.
"(Transfers) are going to happen until you hand down strict penalties that threaten kids' eligibility, or a coach with sanctions."

Schofield also believes the only way to reduce transfers is with stricter penalties.

"The new bylaws have the potential to help, and all you can do is keep chipping at a major fundamental flaw, because high school sports are intended to build character and have fun," Schofield said. "Anything we can do is good. I would fear the only real way to put some teeth into stopping it would be to do something similar to what the NCAA does."

Schofield suggested student-athletes who move within a 75-mile radius should either sit out a year or opt into a hardship process.

Swearngin, however, doesn't see a plan like that being entered into the bylaws.

"I don't think that's necessary," Swearngin said. "We've heard that opinion before. We live in a free country, and if a family wants to physically move from one place to another, in my opinion, we could not go to court and defend saying he/she can't be eligible.

"What it boils down to is, for us as an organization, you've got to be careful when you penalize people who might be cheating, because it will affect those who aren't cheating. That's the balance you've got to achieve."

Swearngin also noted that when families are caught making illegitimate moves, the student-athlete is ineligible to compete for one year.

He said that's a lot stricter than other states, which impose a 90-day or one-semester penalty.
"I'd say we're in the minority on that stance," he said.

With no clear plan in sight for the GHSA to impose harsher eligibility rules, schools and communities must live with and enforce the rules provided.

Fox has simple advice for those who have evidence of an illegitimate move, or undue influence contributing to a move.

"Go straight to the GHSA and understand the rules," he said. "If I had known the GHSA rules, I wouldn't have had to deal with (Rockdale County High). Schools sometimes operate under a set of rules different from the GHSA.

"The GHSA did a good job. They were a little slow, but they're a small staff and have a bunch of responsibilities.

"And I'd say don't give up."

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