It has been nearly seven years, but the forfeiture ruling that derailed Osbourn Park High School's promising 1997 football season still stings for former Yellow Jackets football coach Mike Feldman.
"It still gets me angry," Feldman said recently. "There are some very raw feelings there."
The situation faced by Broadneck High School's football team today reminds Feldman of his 1997 squad, which had to forfeit its first four victories because it used a player who was ruled ineligible, seemingly on a technicality. Broadneck's 2003 county and region titles, along with its 13 victories from last season, have been wiped out -- pending an appeal to the Maryland Public Secondary Schools Athletic Association that will be heard this afternoon -- because one of the team's reserves was found to be ineligible.
Washington area coaches say the sanctions imposed against Broadneck are an example of what they see as extreme punishment for an insignificant and unintentional infraction that would have been difficult to prevent. Several area teams have committed similar, seemingly small infractions in recent years and have been forced to forfeit games, provoking protests from coaches, players and parents. But the athletic officials who enforce the rules for public school leagues say residency and guardianship regulations are in place for a reason -- to keep coaches from going outside a school's enrollment district in search of talented players.
"If a school was not diligent in determining eligibility, there is very little room to find any other consequence than forfeiture," said Ken Tilley, the executive director of the Virginia High School League, which governs public school sports in the state. "It's the obligation of the school to check very carefully the eligibility of students."
At Broadneck, the ineligible player's family moved out of school's enrollment district before the school year, according to a source with knowledge of the situation, and the player moved in with a teammate because of family problems. He did not notify Coach Jeff Herrick or Broadneck administrators that he was no longer living with his parents -- if he had, he might have been able to get a waiver to stay eligible at the Annapolis school -- and was ruled ineligible because his legal guardians did not live in the school district.
Herrick discovered the player had moved when he was compiling a phone list this spring and reported the violation to Anne Arundel County. The county's sanction -- forfeiture -- is consistent with rules governing player eligibility in other public school counties and leagues throughout Maryland, Virginia and the District.
The ineligible player on Feldman's Osbourn Park 1997 team had attended a Fairfax County school the year before while living with his grandmother, his legal guardian. When the grandmother died, the player moved in with his aunt and uncle, who lived in the Osbourn Park school district near Manassas.
The aunt and uncle filed for custody of the boy but could not get a court date until several weeks after school opened. The Prince William County school system allowed the student to enroll before establishing legal residence in the school district, since the student and his guardians were making a good faith effort to establish residence. But Virginia High School League rules required that his legal residence was officially established before he was eligible to play varsity athletics at his new school.
"I can feel for Coach Herrick," said Feldman, who said the forfeits set the program back several years. "Been there, buddy, been there. Got the T-shirt and the battle scars."
As does Arundel Coach Chuck Markiewicz, Herrick's best friend, who dealt with a similar situation following the 1996 season when he was the coach at North County High in Glen Burnie. That season Markiewicz's team went 9-2 and reached the Maryland quarterfinals but had to forfeit its victories when it was found one of his players was ineligible.
The player -- "the second-string punter, how much do you think he played?" Markiewicz said -- was home-taught, meaning he was taught at home by his parents. Had he been home-schooled (taught at home by a teacher) he would have been eligible to play sports for the school in his district. Markiewicz, who was unaware of the distinction, said he had asked school administrators before the season if the player could play and they told him the player could.
Feldman and Markiewicz both still question why their cases were treated as harshly as what they would consider deliberate attempts to use ineligible players -- for instance, coaches who were caught recruiting players or manipulating grades. They argue that exceptions could have been made for their extenuating circumstances."There are people who do circumvent the rules and violate their spirit," Feldman said. "Those are the people the rules are supposed to protect us from.
"I think our governing bodies have to use some judicial common sense. They feel if they rule in favor of a kid or school, they're giving in. But that's not the case. They could have done the right thing [with our appeal], but they didn't . . . We were up front, but I thought the VHSL was not very open to the environment which we were dealing with. They were dealing with eligibility in a Ward and June Cleaver prism that doesn't exist."
But according to Tilley, intent of the coaches makes little difference.
"We often hear the plea that this was an honest mistake and students should not suffer for the errors of adults," Tilley said. "But it's very rare that there might be a deliberate mistake. So if you followed that argument, you probably would have very few forfeitures. It is sometimes a harsh penalty, but it is also very rare that a forfeiture penalty would be waived in Virginia, extremely rare."
Several athletic officials added that making exceptions to eligibility rules puts them on a slippery slope. If Broadneck's punishment is overturned because the school claims its mistake was unintentional, some said, the next time the MPSSAA has to rule on a similar matter, it must not only judge guilt or innocence but whether it believes the school had no knowledge of the offense.
"You run that risk," Montgomery County Coordinator of High School Athletics William G. "Duke" Beattie said. "Then you have a rule out there and if you break it for the right reason, it's okay. That's a problem. I'm not saying I don't have sympathy, but walking the middle of the road on that is tough. Policies sometimes are iron-clad for a reason."
A group of Broadneck parents have started a phone call and letter-writing campaign, encouraging the MPSSAA's appeals board to overturn the forfeiture ruling. The parents also are asking the MPSSAA to address the difficulties presented by the residency issue in question. Like many area coaches, they believe that policing the residency of players throughout the season is an unrealistic demand to be made of coaches.
Several area coaches said they understood how even the most attentive coach could have assumed the Broadneck player was eligible. His ineligible status was much more difficult to detect than ineligibility stemming from poor grades, age or number of semesters played.
According to Terry Changuris, who resigned as head football coach at Seneca Valley earlier this year after 16 seasons at the helm, there were players on Seneca Valley junior varsity teams who were not legally living in the Seneca Valley district. His staff found out about the players only after letters to the players' homes came back marked "return to sender."
"Anyone new that comes in, our registrar is a real stickler at checking addresses and making sure everything is in check," Changuris said. "But a kid that already is in the area legally and left and kept [the move] quiet? How would the coach know?"
The problem is not unique to the area. According to a 2001 article in the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, an investigation by the paper "revealed that one week into the start of the 2000-01 fall sports season, 290 Little Rock student athletes were ineligible because coaches or administrators failed to file parental-consent forms, turn in reports or physicals or submit updated grades with the district's athletic office."
"The administrative tasks are overwhelming," Changuris said. "Even as conscientious and honest a person that I know I am, I can't guarantee that every kid that ever played for me was legally in our district."
His football team may forfeit 13 victories