The 117 public school districts in North Carolina must pore over the records of their high school athletes following the revelation last week that 11 of the 14 schools in one of the state's biggest school systems had violated rules by competing with ineligible players.
The statewide review, believed to be unprecedented, was requested by North Carolina's State Board of Education after the Guilford County School District disclosed that 28 teams and four cheerleading squads fielded teams that included players who had accumulated more than the allowable number of absences.
"I've been involved with high school sports for more than four decades, and it's the first time I've ever heard of someone doing something like this," Bob Kanaby, the executive director of the National Federation of State High School Associations, said of North Carolina's review.
North Carolina rules prohibit students who miss more than 13.5 days of school in a semester from competing in sports the following semester. At least one student competed after missing 30 or more days the previous semester, said Terry Grier, superintendent in Guilford, which includes High Point, N.C., and Greensboro, N.C.
Grier announced last week that under state rules, the 11 Guilford schools must forfeit every game in which an ineligible player participated, be stripped of any titles they received and return trophies and awards as well as any money earned from appearing in playoff games.
Combined, the 11 schools will forfeit more than 100 games, return more than $26,000 in playoff revenue and pay $15,500 in fines. The state athletic association imposes $500 fines on schools for every sport that uses an ineligible player, but will reduce the fine if a school reports itself.
"The message here is going to be very clear. Every single one of our athletes is going to be a student first," Grier said when he announced the penalties on Friday. "These teams consist primarily of a lot of student-athletes who worked hard, attended class and played by the rules. Unfortunately, the problems caused by a relative few are going to affect everyone on those teams."
Guilford School District officials likely will determine this week what penalties the administrators and coaches at the 11 schools face. "All of them will be disciplined, and some of them will not be involved with athletics anymore," Grier said.
Yesterday, the Guilford district learned of an additional violation -- one school allowed a player, in his fifth year of high school, to compete in two sports this year although he had exhausted his eligibility.
As the school districts complete their reviews, parents, administrators and coaches across the state are on edge. Nobody wants to see their kids painted as cheaters, said one parent.
Through Monday night, four of the 50 schools that had completed their reviews found ineligible athletes competing.
"It's a smear on high school athletics here, but I don't think it's widespread," said Charles Adams, executive director of the North Carolina High School Athletic Association, which is overseeing the statewide eligibility review.
Many Washington area school districts, including Montgomery and Prince George's counties and the city of Alexandria -- regulate athletes' attendance in a different manner. Those districts do not have cumulative limits on absences, but instead prohibit students from practicing or competing on days he or she misses school (or, in some cases, part of the school day) without an excuse.
Within Guilford County's school district, the controversy is threatening to divide some school communities as blame is cast from one group to the next. Some parents and administrators elsewhere in the state have lashed out at Grier and the Guilford school district for turning the issue into "such a big deal," he said.
Grier, in his second year as superintendent, defends himself by saying what is at stake is nothing less than the "integrity and honor" of the school district. "How do you teach children about ethics and values if you're not going to have any yourself?" he said.
Several coaches and athletic directors have blamed the school district in the local media for failing to teach them how to accurately keep track of their athletes' attendance.
"How come the three schools without any violations knew how to do it?" Grier said. "Really, the information was very accessible. We collected the attendance records from all 14 schools within two and a half hours."
North Carolina's board of education requested that every district complete the review after Donald Moore, the father of Donald Moore Jr., the starting point guard on the Page High School basketball team, threatened in the local newspapers to sue. Page County's boys' basketball team had to forfeit 10 games this season when it was found to be using two ineligible players.
"I know that if the problems are in Guilford, then they've got to be someplace else," said Moore, 46, who also played basketball at Page. "The whole thing is a mess. The only thing I know for sure in this one is that the adults failed the kids."