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Adjustment in eligibility standards trips up basketball players in D.C.

By Alan Goldenbach
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, December 21, 2010; 11:37 PM

It was just a few minutes before tipoff, and Brandon Mendez was moving through the layup line when his coach tapped the junior on the shoulder.

"I need your jersey and shorts," Mendez was told by David Miles, the junior varsity basketball coach at Theodore Roosevelt. "Your grades are messed up."

Mendez thought Miles was joking. Prior to the start of the season, Mendez was cleared to play and suited up for a scrimmage and three regular season games.

Mendez, however, was cleared using an outdated system for determining athletic eligibility. Beginning in the 2007-08 academic year, D.C. Public Schools teachers were able to attach a plus or minus to each student's final letter grade, which figures into their grade-point average. Thus, a "B+", for example, is now equal to a 3.3 as opposed to a 3.0; a "B-" equals 2.7, and so on.

Yet for the past three years, the handbook distributed to athletic directors at the start of each year did not reflect this change. Athletic eligibility was determined using the previous rule. But following last month's DCPS investigation into the academic eligibility of a Ballou football player, the school system realized the inconsistency between its academic and athletic branches. DCPS ordered that athletic eligibility for all players to be determined according to the standards in place for the past three school years.

"We made a mistake," wrote Lisa Ruda, chief of staff for acting DCPS schools chancellor Kaya Henderson in an e-mail Tuesday, referring to the policy change being omitted from the athletic directors' handbook. "We discovered the problem while we were investigating the allegations related to the Turkey Bowl and took immediate steps to correct the mistake."

"After we realized the discrepancy . . . and before making eligibility assessments for the 2010-11 winter sports, we notified all schools and athletic directors" the new grading scale would be used."

For Mendez, this meant his first-term grades of B, C, C-minus and D went from a 2.0 grade-point average (the minimum required to be eligible to play sports) to a 1.93 under the new guidelines. His teammate, junior Jamal Bennett, was in the same predicament - with the exact same grades. He was also pulled off the layup line before the Dec. 13 game against H.D. Woodson.

"I'm trying to figure out how I was okay before then, but not okay now," Bennett said.

In a statement, Marcus Ellis, athletics director for the D.C. Interscholastic Athletic Association, wrote: "All athletics directors were made aware of the change once the decision was made and prior to submission on winter sports eligibility."

But several in the athletic community said the policy change was never communicated to ADs. The reaction from some is jarring. Principally, why make the change in the middle of the school year?

H.D. Woodson junior Ishmael Andrews was eligible to play for the Warriors' football team in the fall, and suited up for their basketball team's first three games before he found out he was ineligible.

"I wish they would have told us about this," said Woodson basketball coach Gregory Harris. "He was so dejected. He doesn't know how to handle this."

Said Anacostia athletic director and boys' basketball coach Frank Briscoe, whose wife, Patricia Briscoe, is the DCPS assistant athletic director, "It was an academic move that affected athletics, only they didn't realize it. Nobody passed it on to athletics. We weren't aware of it."

Dunbar girls' basketball coach Jermaine Clark has been a head or assistant coach in the DCIAA for 10 years, and said of using pluses and minuses for determining eligibility, "That's something new to me. I've never heard of anything like that."

Not everyone, though, was dismayed by the change. Demanding higher academic performance in exchange for athletic participation should be a welcome requirement, according to Dunbar athletic director and boys' basketball coach Johnnie Walker.

"This has been in place all along," Walker said. "The rules have not been enforced in their entirety. What are they complaining about? Make the kid go to class. If a kid has three C's and a C-minus, why are you worrying about playing ball?"

Roosevelt Athletic Director Daryl Tilghman said he had a particularly soft spot for Mendez because Mendez was unable to gain eligibility last year for basketball or this past fall for football. Tilghman said he challenged Mendez to do better, and saw him feel a sense of accomplisment when Mendez was cleared last momth.

"I'm just at a loss," Tilghman said. "If you say, starting in August, that we're changing it, that's okay. But after something happens, you say, 'We're going to change it,' you're not being fair to some kids."

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