DCIAA Athletes Given Fifth Year to Complete Eligibility

By Alan Goldenbach
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, October 5, 2007

High school athletes at D.C. public schools will have a fifth year to complete their eligibility under a controversial bylaw revision approved this week by D.C. Schools Chancellor Michelle A. Rhee.

The measure runs counter to nationwide trends reigning in fifth-year high school athletic participation and has been met by concern from D.C. coaches. They say it can be exploited by students seeking an extra year to improve athletic performance, without regard to academic success, and will make scheduling opponents more difficult.

"We wanted to ensure our schools are consistent with other school districts, and most of them allow" students five years to complete their eligibility, said Mafara Hobson, a spokeswoman for Rhee. When told that neither Virginia nor Maryland public schools allow the practice, Hobson said the school system's research into the rules of other jurisdictions backed the decision.

The practice is frowned upon by the NCAA and the National Federation of State High School Associations, an advisory body without legislative powers.

"If a fifth year is given, it's usually under extenuating circumstances, like an injury or a family problem," said Robert Kanaby, the federation's executive director. The D.C. rule "is the equivalent of playing a post-graduate season, and it's not fair to the other people," Kanaby said.

Last spring, the NCAA, reacting to instances of academic fraud involving fifth-year seniors at prep schools, enacted a rule that prohibits high school athletes from taking more than four years to complete work in core academic courses. Those who need more than four years of high school work in core courses must apply to the NCAA for a waiver to be eligible to play college athletics.

Under the D.C. change, students, upon entering the ninth grade, will have 10 semesters to complete four years of athletic eligibility. The provision does not allow students to play two seasons as 12th graders, nor does it supersede the existing rule forbidding participation to any student who turns 19 before July 1 prior to his senior year.

"What it basically boils down to is, now we can redshirt kids in high school," Ballou football coach Moe Ware said. "This is making our league look like a joke. It's downright embarrassing."

Colleges regularly grant players a redshirt season, typically their freshman year, to sit out and get adjusted to college, while conditioning and weight training with the team.

William Lockridge, the District 4 representative on the D.C. State Board of Education, said the measure would ultimately benefit all students.

"It's just like college ball, when you get redshirted," Lockridge said. "It's not a matter of when you arrived, but when you played. It's better for students to have an extended period to play sports."

One coach, who asked not to be identified, sketched out a scenario through which students could easily abuse the loophole, while still maintaining the requisite 2.0 grade-point average to participate. A student could fail a course required for graduation, such as English, but earn an A in a course such as physical education during the same semester. That way, the student would fall behind one semester (or full year) in a subject required for graduation.

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