As a high school sophomore, 6-foot, 5-inch Charlie Thomas was what college basketball recruiters call a "blue-chip player."
But last year, despite his exceptional ability, Thomas, a Montgomery County athlete, competed on an unexceptional team. This year, that has changed. Thomas goes to a different public school in Montgomery, and plays on a team with a championship record.
Much to the dismay of many school officials, Thomas did what several high school and junior high school students are doing throughout the Washington area: He shopped around for a school where he could show off his athletic abilities.
Montgomery County school regulations prohibit students from leaving their neighborhood schools for the sake of sports, but in the last 15 months, at least 163 high school athletes in the county have played for teams other than their home teams. In most cases the students have taken advantage of liberal exemptions or slipped through loopholes in the regulations. In other cases, school officials or coaches looked the other way.
"When you have kids jumping around, looking for schools with better teams, it introduces them to chicanery," says Joseph S. Villani, principal of Montgomery Blair High School in Silver Spring. "It teaches them to find loopholes in the system." High school becomes a place to play ball, rather than read Shakespeare, and high school sports, he says, "turns into something it is not supposed to be: a mini-National League."
Transfer policies for athletes within a given school district vary widely throughout the Washington area. School systems such as the District and Prince George's allow anyone who has transferred to play immediately.
During recent years, several recruiting accusations here have ended up in court or been debated publicly. Last week, for example, a Fairfax County judge upheld sanctions against Mount Vernon High School that were levied when Mount Vernon basketball coaches were found to have recruited athletes from a neighboring Alexandria school.
And in 1981, the District's director of athletics publicly accused coaches at Anacostia High School of recruiting football players from Eastern High School, when 13 players left the Eastern squad to join the Anacostia team. An associate superintendent later said there was not enough evidence to pursue the accusations.
Montgomery County requires a player to sit out a year at his new school. But school officials and coaches in the county say the policy is often ignored.
"I can't stand it," says Frank Wilkinson, assistant director of athletics at Blair. "One year you have a guy on your team and he's scoring points for you and the next year there he is on the front line of another team, scoring against you. Why have a rule if no one is going to enforce it?"
School officials say stricter enforcement is needed to discourage students from hopping from team to team. They say that recruiting and the resultant transfers for athletic reasons distort and professionalize what should be a means to develop athletic skills and team camaraderie. Coaches point out that the transfer of one player also can throw off the balance of power among teams. On a basketball team, where only five players start, an outstanding extra player can mean the difference between fourth place and the regional championship.
Charlie Thomas, now 16, was a leading scorer at Sherwood High in Sandy Spring last year, helping the team reach an 11-11 record, and averaging 18 points a game. Then Thomas switched 12 miles away to Seneca Valley High in Germantown, one of the premier teams in the area. And Sherwood's current record is 4-16.
Thomas is allowed to go to school at Seneca Valley because he now lives in an apartment his father rented for him near the school.
"It's a little expensive," says the older Thomas. "But not any more than what a lot of people pay to send their kids to private school. Different people like to spend money in different ways. I happen to like the game."
Paige Pawlik of Rockville, a star last year when she was runner-up in the Maryland mile track championship, was granted approval to transfer to Seneca Valley this year because she signed up for an aviation course there that wasn't offered at Magruder High where, last year, she was responsible for nearly 20 percent of her team's points, according to her former coach. Seneca Valley has twice won the girls' state track championship, but Pawlik and her father, Daniel, deny she transferred for athletic reasons.
"What does this teach kids about loyalty?" asks Sherwood's boys' basketball coach Mel Laughner. "It teaches them how to circumvent rules . . . It teaches them that if you make up a good enough excuse or have enough money . . . you can play sports wherever you want. It makes me sick."
School administrators deny there is widespread misuse of the transfer policy. Regulations prohibiting athletic transfers are tougher this year than ever in Montgomery County, said Bill Kyle, the county's director of athletics. Kyle said more students are being discouraged from transferring this year, and many who do transfer sit out a year rather than apply for waivers.
Until this year, student athletes could have the one-year ineligibility rule waived if, like Pawlik, they enrolled in a class not offered at their home school. The result was predictable. At Seneca Valley High, for example, a boys' basketball powerhouse, several basketball players from out of the area signed up for an agriculture course not offered elsewhere around the county.
This year, Kyle says, students requesting a transfer must enroll in a series of related courses not offered at their home school if they want to avoid sitting out a year.
A review of school system records, however, shows that Montgomery officials waived the ineligibility rule for at least 57 students in the first three months of this school year, or more than half the number granted all of last year. During the last 15 months, when officials granted 163 waivers, they turned down only 24 waiver requests.
In Montgomery, many of the waivers are for what Kyle calls special exceptions not spelled out in the policy. Some students argue that they have emotional problems staying in their home school. Others have parents who say they do not like the academic or social environment of their child's home school.
One of the most controversial exceptions this year was soccer player Bruce Murray, the second-leading scorer in the county last year when playing at Seneca Valley High School, and according to coaches, one of the best in the country. Murray has won two national individual skill championships.
Murray asked for a waiver to transfer to Churchill High in Potomac--the championship soccer team in the county last year and second in the state. School officials first denied the transfer, then granted it after Murray submitted psychological reports that soccer was an integral part of his life. "I know a lot of people think I transferred to Churchill to play soccer," Murray said, "but it's not true. It really was for an academic reason. I wanted to stay at Seneca but my parents did not want me to go back there. I was failing one class and my parents thought Churchill would be a better academic school for me. I have a lot of chances at scholarships and my parents didn't want me to mess it up by failing."
Murray "was probably one we should not have waived," said athletic director Kyle, "but we were trying to help a kid whose parents said he had problems at his old school."
"We need to have exceptions," Kyle continued. "Each kid has individual problems. We do have kids who come in here with psychiatric reports that say they need to play sports. Maybe 99 percent of these are phony, but what do we say when the 1 percent we do not allow to play commits suicide?"
Louis Kopolow, a Gaithersburg psychiatrist who has counseled many adolescents with problems relating to sports, said he believes there are legitimate reasons why ineligibility rules should be waived for students who want to play sports.
"You have to look at what value a youngster places on a given activity. For some kids, who eat, sleep and drink a sport, removing that activity is akin to removing a career for an adult," Kopolow said. "Historically, we've allowed students to transfer for academic reasons and there is no evidence that these sorts of academic activities are any more important to that youngster as a sport may be to another."
Some Montgomery school psychologists, however, question whether the need to play a sport is ever so great that a student must be given special treatment.
"I would look on that kind of rationale with a jaundiced eye," said Robert Bacher, a psychologist with the school system for 12 years. "It would be an extremely low priority for me."
Exceptions such as Murray's have many in Montgomery wondering whether they are so broad as to be almost useless. In Virginia, where there was a similar policy until 1981, all exceptions were eliminated two years ago--except residence changes--when too many abuses of the policy were reported. Now a student must sit out a semester, regardless of whether the reason for transferring might be academic.
"Do you think Murray would have transferred if he was told he could play at Gaithersburg High?" asks Woodward High soccer coach Dave Scaggs. In fact, Kyle initially told Murray he would grant a waiver to Gaithersburg or Wootton High, two lesser soccer powers.
"I see new faces popping up all the time," said Coach Hank Galotta of Paint Branch High. "You have to wonder also why they always seem to be at the same schools."
A review of the top boys' and girls' basketball teams in Montgomery County over the last few years supports Galotta's statement. Six of the top boys' teams in the county this year have at least one player--in most instances one of the five starters--playing for a school outside his home area or who played for another school last year and has returned home.
At Seneca Valley, three players on this year's team played on different teams during the last two years--one at a private school and two others at public schools. The previous year, when Seneca Valley won the state championship, three players were from out of the area--including one who had sat out a year to become eligible. Wheaton, which won its league last year, has three transfers--one who was transferred by the county because of academic problems and another who returned to his home school after an outstanding season at Bethesda-Chevy Chase last year. Two players were removed from the varsity at Blair earlier this month when it was discovered they lived in Prince George's County.
In girls' basketball, two of the five starters at Springbrook High are transfers. And at Blair, another powerhouse, two players are from out of the area and one transferred back to Blair after spending a year at Northwood.
One family with athletically gifted children wound up with siblings playing varsity basketball at different schools. Thomas Dodson transferred to Northwood High while his sister Denean stayed at their home school to play at Blair.
"It just has to stop," said Seneca Valley Principal Nathan Pearson. In the last two years, Pearson and the county's 21 other high school principals twice have asked unanimously that any student who transfers and wants to play a sport be required to sit out a year.
When athletes start shopping for schools, says Pearson, all transfers are suspected of having been recruited, a serious violation of county and state school regulations. Coaches may subtly suggest that a player might like to join their team, and players and their parents begin to court invitations and look for ways to skirt the rules.
A lot of students, for example, want to play for Gene Doane, basketball coach at Seneca Valley, because a starter on his team is almost guaranteed a college scholarship. Last year, every one of his starters was offered scholarships, to such schools as St. Bonaventure University, St. Louis University, Franklin Pierce College and Ferrum (Va.) Junior College. Doane said he gets so many inquiries about transfers that he sends them all to his principal or athletic director. Earlier this year, two players were barred from trying out for the junior varsity team because they had not received a waiver of the ineligibility rule.
Denise Paar said Doane encouraged her to enroll her son, Jason, now a 6-foot, 8-inch varsity basketball player at Gaithersburg, at Seneca Valley when Jason was in ninth grade at Montgomery Village Junior High. Paar said Doane told her Jason could take one course at Seneca and the waiver would be approved.
Shirley Dickerson said Doane told her the same thing when her son Anthony Daughtry, a teammate of Paar's, was in ninth grade. Both women said they believed their sons were being recruited.
Doane denied that he was attempting to recruit the two athletes, who remained at their home school, Gaithersburg. He said he was answering questions from the parents on a general basis about how any student could transfer to another school in the county and receive permission to play a sport.
"I'm not saying that I haven't made mistakes . . . ," said Doane. "But kids hear what they want to here . . . Sometimes you're paying a kid a compliment and he thinks you're trying to recruit him."