Several weeks ago, a Northern Virginia high school football coach decided it was important to his team's win-loss record to find out what an opposing team was planning to do. So the coach planted a tape recorder in the opposing team's locker room.
The coach, from West Springfield High School in Fairfax, was suspended and later resigned. When you ask fellow coaches about the incident the answers are nearly the same.
"It makes us all look bad."
But in the very next breath, they say they are not surprised.
According to these coaches, the rules that govern high school sports have been broken, in spirit or in letter, many times in recent years.
Take the Sportsmanship Rule, which requires schools "to conduct all their relations with other schools in a spirit of good sportsmanship."
Although the West Springfield case may be the most sensational breach of the rule, coaches say it has not been the only one.
As an example, they cite an incident that once occurred at a Virginia state track meet. Under the rules, each student can participate in only three events. But one coach wanted to use his top performer in a fourth event, so he had the youngster register under a false name. The boy never made it to the event, other coaches say, because a college coach recognized the infraction and made him withdraw.
Or take the Transfer Rule, which prohibits students from transferring from one school to another without a "corresponding change in the residence of his (or her) parents, parent, or guardian."
Last winter and spring, and again this fall, several Northern Virginia high school teams were forced to forfeit games because the rule was violated. In two cases, the forfeitures affected district championships.
"I bet there are so many violations of the Transfer Rule right now, it would take all year to clear them up," one coach says. "When a kid gives us an address, we assume it's correct. We can't check on all the kids in our program. We rely on the honesty of the parents."
Then there is the Proselyting Rule, a variation of the Transfer Rule, which says no school "shall subject a student . . . to undue influence by encouraging him to transfer from one school to another."
Conflicts over what is and what is not proselyting revolve around "pupil placement." For instance, some coaches say, coaches sometimes encourage students from other schools to request "pupil placement," or a transfer out of their attendance area.
Parents request the change, and the reason most often given is that the new school offers a course the student can't get at the school in his or her area. But coaches say they doubt that educational offerings are the real reason behind the transfer requests. "In the case of athletes," one coach says, "it has been obvious for many years that academics are often not the real reason for the move."
Examples of rules violations, say area coaches, go on and on. And the coaches say they are becoming more and more disturbed not only by the apparent increase in violations, but by the prevailing attitude in high school sports that winning is everything.
The thrill of victory, they say, simply is not worth the cost -- a group of students who end up with the attitude that fair play doesn't count any more.
Years ago, coaches say, the type and magnitude of violations that now occur simply would not have been tolerated. But, they quickly add, high school sports has become a pressure-packed world. The pressure comes from all angles -- parents, schools, the coaches themselves.
The most direct pressure comes from parents, coaches say. "Not a day goes by when parents aren't asking for rules to be bent by a coach," says one veteran coach.
Parents whose children have been cut from teams have appealed the decision to school administrators, have demanded (and gotten) re-tryouts in some cases and have even threatened to sue.
One parent even submitted a six-page study entitled "Twenty-Seven Facts About the (Football) Program" to a school principal in an attempt to have a coach fired because he had produced two losing seasons in a row. The report included a "male student/victory ratio" to show a school's "success . . . in producing victories per the number of male students in that school."
The coach, who had a winning season in his third year, was not fired, but he says, "I almost got an ulcer and a divorce because of the pressure."
Says another coach, "Our authority is challenged at every turn. It's a big ego trip for parents to have their kid on a team, especially a winning team."
Indeed, a school's prestige often rests on its athletic program, not the scholars it produces. Principals agree that a successful athletic program can have a positive effect on the entire school program, so they look for coaches who can produce victories.
"I was told in no uncertain terms by the principal when I was hired," says one soccer coach, "that this school and community expected a winning team and that I was expected to provide it."
"The money is important because it is used to carry most of the athletic program," one football coach admits. "But it causes a cycle. You don't get the good crowds unless you have a winning season. For that, you need a coach who is willing to work, but if he works and doesn't get the winning season, then people start complaining (to the athletic director). The coach gets pressure from the (athletic director) and then maybe he feels it's necessary to bend the rules.
"Then you get grown men doing things you wouldn't expect them to do."
Coaches admit it is hard to resist such intense pressure, and that some of that pressure comes from themselves.
"It's such a damn competitive situation," one coach says. "There are other things to athletics besides winning and losing but it's hard to realize that sometimes."
Nearly all the coaches agree that something needs to be done, but few have any ideas about solving the problem.
"We all need to follow the rules and not bend to the pressures," one coach says. "We need to admit we have a problem and do something about it. We're in the Twilight Zone right now regarding rules."