Since high school basketball star Billy King was 13 years old, he has been sought by coaches who want him to play at their schools.
These have not been college coaches recruiting the 6-foot-6 1/2-inch player from Park View High School in Loudoun County, however, but high school coaches from throughout the Washington metropolitan area.
King says four coaches from Northern Virginia public schools have tried to recruit him by attempting to "work out ways to get me into the school, like trying to get my family to move."
The Virginia High School League (VHSL) rules which govern extracurricular activities for high schools in the state prohibit recruiting. The rules specify that "no member school or group of individuals representing the school shall subject a student from another school to undue influence by encouraging him to transfer from one school to another for league activities." Violators could be subject to VHSL displinary action--such as foreiting games or league titles.
"When it started, I was in the eighth grade and I thought it was going to go away," said King, a 16-year-old from Sterling Park. But it hasn't, King said. He says he still gets calls and occasional visits from some local coaches, even though he's made it clear he plans to stay at Park View.
Neither King nor his basketball coach at Park View, Kenneth Edwards, would cite specifically which schools and individuals were involved in his recruiting, saying they did not want to cause trouble for other teams and coaches. Edwards did say that "it was someone other than the head coach" who recruited King.
The courtship of Billy King is no isolated case. Coaches, parents and student athletes all acknowledge that young athletes in this area, like young athletes nationwide, frequently are persuaded to attend public schools other than the one school that boundaries dictate they should attend. And in addition, sometimes parents or the students themselves initiate the transfers.
The reasons can be as numerous as the cases: the reputation of a coach, friendships with players from other schools, the desire to play on a championship team, a disagreement between coach and player, fear of not getting playing time or, most frequently, a better chance of being seen by college coaches and thus getting a college scholarship.
But often when someone thinks a student athlete has been recruited, controversy seems to spark anew.
Recently, the Alexandria and Fairfax school superintendents appointed a three-member fact-finding committee to investigate whether Mount Vernon High School, in Fairfax County, recruited star athletes away from T. C. Williams. The committee has not limited its investigation to the two schools, however, and is looking at the situation throughout Northern Virginia, according to member Thomas LoFaro. Its report should be ready within the next week, LoFaro said.
The investigation was started after an article in the Mount Vernon High School student newspaper in early January, written by two Mount Vernon students, contended that its school had been recruiting T. C. Williams athletes. The Mount Vernon school administration objected to the claims and confiscated the newspapers before most were distributed.
No one from Alexandria or Fairfax County has filed a formal complaint about the situation with the VHSL, according to VHSL assistant executive secretary Earl Gillespie. Gillespie said the league gets "about three or four allegations of proselyting recruiting per year, but most of those are not followed up in writing."
And, according to VHSL Executive Secretary William Pace, "We've never judged a school bringing 'undue influence' as our rules require. All too often it's hearsay. . . . I don't believe we've ever been able to prove proselyting, and I've been here since 1957."
There are ways for athletes and other students to transfer from school to school and violate no rules, however, although these means sometimes are used to skirt the regulations:
* The athlete's parents can move into another school district. This type of transfer is rarely questioned, and the athlete will be eligible immediately.
* If the student's parents are separated or divorced and live in different school districts, the student can chose which school to attend, as long as the corresponding parent assumes legal custody and the student lives in the district. However, unless the parent to whom custody has been switched also changes place of residence, the student can lose a semester of eligibility.
* The parents can have legal guardianship of their child switched to someone else or have their child legally adopted by someone living in another school area. This can cost the athlete a semester of eligibility, however, if the school system determines the move was not due to personal or social reasons.
* In the Fairfax school system, students who have a parent employed by the school system can transfer to the school at which that parent is employed. Students in Alexandria, Arlington and Loudoun do not have this option.
* By paying tuition, students sometimes can switch from one public school system to another. Fairfax and Loudoun do not accept transfer students who live in another jurisdiction, but Arlington and Alexandria do.
* In Fairfax, under a program called pupil placement, students can change schools within the system without paying tuition under certain circumstances: If the family moves or demonstrates an "unreasonable hardship or provides evidence that constant concern would exist" if a switch were not made or if "school personnel or professional counsel indicates a pupil should be in a different school for reasons of social or emotional adjustment."
Currently, Fairfax also allows a student to transfer to another school under pupil placement rules if that school offers a course not offered at the first school. Beginning next year, however, this will not be allowed because the system plans to launch an experiment that will create three-school clusters offering all courses available anywhere within the county system. Thus, if a student wants to take a course not offered at his school, he will be able to get that course at one of the other two schools in his cluster, but will take all other courses at his first school.
In Fairfax, coaches say, the most blatant abuses of recruiting have resulted from the pupil placement rule.
As George Mason and former Flint Hill basketball star Carlos Yates said, "If there is a legal way to get a kid from one school to another, the leading coaches in Northern Virginia know it. Look, getting around the rules is what it's all about." Yates, who played basketball at Oakton before transferring to Flint Hill, a Fairfax County private school, and now plays for George Mason University, said high schools started recruiting him at age 14. "About five of the high schools that recruited me were public schools from Northern Virginia and the District of Columbia," he said.
"The rules are stupid because they can so easily be abused," said John Cook, a former high school coach at Edison in Fairfax and now the head track coach at George Mason University, who admits to having recruited while a high school coach. "They are, at best, nebulous. First, they were originally written for the student, not the student-athlete. Pupil placement is very subjective. All you need is a tear-jerking parent who uses reasons like social adjustment and psychological problems, and the schools will back down."
About 85 percent of the high schools in the metropolitan area do not recruit, according to Hank Galotta, a former assistant coach at DeMatha High School in the District who now coaches at Paint Branch High School in Montgomery County. "But there are about 15 percent that do recruit by flagrantly bending the rules or by going around the rules in a clever way that you can't pin them on," Galotta said.
W. T. Woodson coach Paul (Red) Jenkins, one of Northern Virginia's most successful coaches, said one offshoot of charges of recruiting violations is that "all the basketball coaches get a bum rap."
"There are 28 of us out here in Fairfax County ," Jenkins said. "It's like medicine or any other profession: Not everybody is going to be honest."
What coaches describe as the vagueness of the rules contributes to recruiting, they say.
To circumvent the geographic restrictions, for example, some local athletes--almost always with the consent of their parents--have made up addresses and relatives with whom they supposedly would live, said Bill Yost, an assistant track coach T. C. Williams. "It's common knowledge that students say they go live with their grandparents, but it's not restricted to athletics. The difference is that people question it if the student is an athlete. They just don't question if the student is a standout chemistry student."
In the fall of 1979, three student-athletes registered at Mount Vernon and began playing football and basketball for the school after transferring from T. C. Williams in Alexandria.
"They furnished addresses from the area," said Mount Vernon Principal Thomas Hyer. "The parents provided written documents that were notarized that said the athletes were legitimately in Mount Vernon."
That fall, Mount Vernon won its only Northern Region football championship.
But that winter, an investigation found that the addresses were false. The investigation was conducted by the Gunston District Committee, the governing body of one of four high school athletic districts in this part of the state. As a result, the committee ordered the Mount Vernon basketball team to forfeit 14 victories.
Despite such possible consequences, recruiting--and resultant transfers of students from one school to another--continues, coaches agree.
T. C. Williams basketball coach Mike Hynson said that in the last five years he's lost more than 20 players from his basketball team.
"Some are legitimate moves, but others are not so legitimate," said Hynson. "These kids were coerced with guarantees of scholarships to college. I could promise any kid that he would get a college scholarship, but I can't deliver on that promise."
Robert Hanley, principal of T. C. Williams High School in Alexandria, said he has suspected for years that some of his players were recruited by other schools, but he said his school never had accused anyone.
After publication of the Mount Vernon student newspaper article contending that the school was recruiting athletes away from T. C. Williams, and subsequent concern voiced by residents of both areas, Fairfax Superintendent Linton Deck and Alexandria Superintendent Robert Peebles appointed the fact-finding committee: Marion (Skip) Ward of Prince William County, Thomas LoFaro of Alexandria and T. Page Johnson of Fairfax County. Ward and Johnson are former directors of the VHSL; LoFaro is an Alexandria school system employe.
"Something had to be done," said Peebles. "These accusations are not a game. It's serious and that's why people are not interested in talking about it.
"I think recruiting probably goes on throughout the country. The problem occurs when competition becomes more important than it should be," Peebles said. "When that happens there is a temptation to get better players, and education takes a back seat. I think there's got to be a balance."
Peebles said that he has not decided if he will make the fact-finding committee's report public. The Fairfax School Board has ordered Deck to make the report immediately available to board members.
"It's very difficult to prove recruiting , but I can't believe that nothing can be done," Hanley said. "If we're at the point where high school kids are being used and the league can't address these ethical questions, then the VHSL better start reevaluating its priorities.
"I don't see how a kid at the junior high level can deal with it. It must warp their sense of value. On the one hand we're telling our kids we're building character, while on the other we're going after them at the junior high school levels."
Charlie Thompson, basketball coach at Lee High School in Fairfax County, says means do exist to squelch high school recruiting. For one thing, he says, school systems could establish an open system, like the District has. In an open system, junior high students can choose which high school they want to attend, with the only limit being student capacity.
The Texas Board of Education faced a similar dilemma a few years ago and instituted a statewide rule requiring students who transfer from one public school to another to sit out an entire school year before becoming eligible to compete on athletic teams, with no exceptions.
But Don Riviere, T. C. Williams athletic director, believes the real solution, as well as the problem, lies with the parents.
"Anyone can approach a kid about moving, but it still takes the parents to get him to do it," Riviere said. "They have to assume the major part of the responsibility."