Agitator for Fairness Makes Himself Heard
It began with a junior varsity baseball tryout two years ago. The kid, a deserving player in the eyes of his dad, got cut for the second straight year. The kid, and dad, wanted to know why. Dissatisfied with the answers, or lack thereof, they turned to the boy's travel team coach for guidance.
With that, Fairness in School Sports was born. Since then, other parents have sought out FISS founder Mike Grasso with their complaints, hoping to right perceived wrongs in Fairfax County high school sports programs.
Grasso, a youth baseball coach and retired U.S. Department of Agriculture inspector, has become a won't-take-no-for-an-answer rabble-rouser, banging on the door of the Fairfax County school system for the past 13 months -- even when a simple knock might have been just as effective. He has bent the ear and flooded the inbox of Paul Jansen, supervisor of athletics for the county schools, who is as deliberate as Grasso is antsy.
How antsy? Grasso, 63, has filed more than 50 Freedom of Information Act requests to obtain details on how the county schools operate.
Grasso's beefs are many, but here are two main concerns: tryout criteria and conflicts of interest, issues that in his eyes are intertwined.
He believes would-be team members should know the basis for making a team and receive a detailed explanation of the reasons they are cut, forcing coaches -- who, Grasso says, might be favoring players from club teams that serve as thinly veiled feeder programs -- to justify their decisions.
He also believes that some Northern Virginia high school baseball coaches steer their players to certain indoor facilities and clinics in which the coaches work or have a financial stake. His argument: With players of similar ability, which kid is the coach going to keep? The one whose parents wrote a check for $500 to attend the coach's camp, or the one whose parents didn't?
Grasso, a Brooklyn native, cites examples of two county coaches -- one a JV coach, one varsity -- conducting what they called organizational meetings for the high school team and at the same time handing out advertisements for indoor baseball facilities with which they are affiliated.
"I believe some use their positions to direct kids to these places," Grasso said. "Not at every high school, but at the majority of them. . . . Here is a coach who's a partner in that business using Fairfax County facilities to promote his own business."
The county, it seems, is listening. Jansen has hired his predecessor, Bruce Patrick, as a consultant to meet with Grasso and address his concerns.
Grasso is pleased by the county's good-faith effort and decided not to speak at the most recent School Board meeting, a forum he has used to broadcast his concerns.
Let's get this out of the way now: Grasso's detractors, and there are several, say that he started FISS because he has personal axes to grind in the Hayfield/South County high school sports community, and they point out that he is the former president of the South County Hawks travel baseball team and owner of Baseball Mechanics Inc., a baseball school. They say he is railing against travel teams that have school ties and high school coaches who moonlight at baseball facilities because he has a financial interest in doing so himself.
Grasso said that he stepped down as the Hawks' president -- though he's still on the board of directors -- and that his baseball business is fairly inactive. He said he just wants to bring about change in Fairfax County high school sports, and not just baseball.
"If I wasn't right, just a little bit, do you think that the county would be bothering with me?" Grasso said. "Do you think the county would hire Bruce Patrick? Do you think the county would be redoing all their training, and so on and so forth, if I wasn't a little bit right?"
The county clearly believes Grasso has raised a legitimate issue, and school officials have made changes, such as providing more information about student activities on the school system's Web site.
"I have spent more time with him than on any one issue in the last 13 months," Jansen said. "I'll keep working with him as long as I feel it's in the interest of kids. I have a lot of respect for what he talks about and some of the things he'd like to see happen."
One of the many facilities Grasso cites among potential conflicts of interest is MVP Baseball, co-owned by Madison High School Coach Mark Gjormand and Oakton Coach Scott Rowland. MVP counts many Northern Virginia high school coaches among its instructors.
Rowland said he makes sure parents realize that spending money to work out at MVP does not guarantee their son a spot on his team, and he gives out information on similar facilities in the area.
"It's to the point where if I didn't run a camp, then players, parents, everyone would be disappointed because you're not doing the best job possible to help your program," Rowland said. "Most guys want to go where [their high school] coach is. Is that such a bad thing?
"When it comes to tryouts, none of this stuff comes into play. I can't imagine coaches, with the egos that we have, would want to [keep] anyone but the best players."
Some coaches believe that Grasso's claims are exaggerated. But Grasso has made it clear that he is not going away, although his tone is much softer now than it was in earlier exchanges with the school system.
"I think the county is actually making a yeoman's effort to try to deal with the problems," Grasso said. "Not all of the coaches are bad. Not all of the schools are bad. But there's enough of them to kind of give a black eye to the entire system."