Phelps and McKinley Tech, shown before the DCIAA’s inaugural Gravy Bowl last month, are not among the perennial football powers in the city. Both schools posted winning seasons this fall, and new rules designed to curb transfers could help increase parity in D.C. high school athletics. (Toni L. Sandys/The Washington Post)

The District’s high school football championship — Washington’s equivalent to a state title game — was Clark Ray’s first key task two years ago. D.C.’s top high school athletic official will watch like a proud father as H.D. Woodson and Friendship Collegiate play Friday night . But he’ll leave the stadium firm in his hopes that the game never looks quite like this again.

Over the past two decades, Washington’s high school football fields have slowly turned into an open marketplace, with schools and coaches competing to attract the best talent, and Friday’s game will be a showcase of what Ray considers to be an alarming trend.

H.D. Woodson is just a season removed from losing its longstanding coach after an investigation revealed it used an ineligible player from Maryland. The school is just a few months removed from a residency investigation of its best player, who transferred schools twice in six months.

On the other sideline, Friendship Collegiate has been investigated at least four times in the past year in relation to transfers and currently has four players under review for possible residency infractions and a staff member on probation for recruiting.

“Academics are a right, but athletics . . . they’re a privilege. So you can’t just change schools to participate in athletics,” Ray said of a trend that has come to define high school football in the area. Ray, the D.C. State Athletic Association athletic director, put into effect new regulations to curb the practice this year.

DCSAA Director Clark Ray is working to reduce the widespread athletic-based transfers that have long been a part of high school sports in Washington. (SUSAN BIDDLE/FOR THE WASHINGTON POST)

Transferring schools has long been a centerpiece of the District’s football culture. For as long as there have been trophies to be won, players have wanted to suit up for the schools that win them. The allure of college scholarships has only accelerated the trend.

Interviews with more than two dozen area coaches, players and administrators, in addition to a review of hundreds of documents and e-mails obtained from the Office of the State Superintendent of Education through the Freedom of Information Act, reveal that shifting allegiances and suspected recruiting have transformed the makeup of not just team rosters but the entire landscape of football in the region. It has created a competitive imbalance in which some teams routinely assemble high-powered rosters that dominate their opponents.

Washington’s complicated education system and unique geography, sandwiched between two states and more than a half-dozen independent school districts, lends itself to an especially high mobility rate. A study from the Office of the State Superintendent of Education earlier this year found the District’s public schools have a particularly fluid population, with more than 15,000 students leaving the D.C. school system and more than 17,000 entering it over a recent 12-month period. The study did not break down the movement by grade or cause, such as athletic or academic considerations, but D.C.’s transfer rate is, for example, about 50 percent higher than nearby Fairfax County.

As a result, every team in the area is affected by players hopping from school to school and team to team.

Friendship began the season with 23 players who started their high school careers at different schools, including Ballou, H.D. Woodson and McKinley Tech from the District; DeMatha, Carroll, St. John’s and McNamara from the Washington Catholic Athletic Conference; and Bowie and Wise from Prince George’s County.

Unlike residents from neighboring school districts, Washington students and parents seeking a transfer find few roadblocks. All D.C. Public Schools students are guaranteed a spot in their designated neighborhood school but may also apply for enrollment at any other school in the city if space is available. Public charter schools, such as Friendship Collegiate, meanwhile, feature open enrollment and are available to all D.C. residents, regardless of address. This means the hallways of every school are filled with students from all over the District, and though recruiting athletes from other high schools is prohibited by DCSAA rules, it’s especially easy for coaches to enroll someone who doesn’t necessarily reside within a school’s geographic boundaries.

While many area coaches have never felt transferring players was problematic, Ray said the freedom of mobility has eroded parity among football teams over the last decade. He took the job overseeing high school sports in the city in February 2012. After just one season, he knew he had a problem, and two days after Friendship won the inaugural DCSAA title game last December, he set out to do something about it.

H.D. Woodson’s D'Andre Payne, an All-Met defensive back, briefly transferred to Friendship Collegiate in the spring where he committed to Tennessee before returning to the Warriors for the 2013 football season. He is one of several high-profile D.C. football transfers in recent years. (Toni L. Sandys/The Washington Post)

Ray introduced an ambitious plan: a new rule that would force students to sit out from varsity athletics for a year if they moved to any school in the District after the ninth grade.

It went into effect on Aug. 1, too late to stop many students from transferring prior to this football season. Ray said the real impact will be felt in ensuing years.

“It is an attempt to bring some parity among interscholastic athletic programs within the District,” Ray said. “The rule was met with some hesitancy among a lot of people. But the general consensus was, it was something that was needed.”

An entrenched practice

Ray didn’t have to search hard to find cases that illustrate the District’s rampant mobility.

D’Andre Payne, a senior All-Met cornerback at H.D. Woodson, transferred to Friendship Collegiate last January and became the school’s first major college commitment for the Class of 2014 when he pledged to the University of Tennessee in April. But he transferred back to H.D. Woodson early in the summer without playing a down for Friendship.

Highly touted defensive tackle Adam McLean, a junior, bounced to three schools within one year, transferring from the Avalon School in Montgomery County to Friendship last winter before leaving the charter school in the spring to enroll at Quince Orchard in Gaithersburg.

The trend is hardly limited to football; eight players from H.D. Woodson’s girls’ basketball team left the school en masse earlier this year to follow their coach to Capitol Christian Academy in Landover. But in football, the prevalence of transferring has become intertwined with the game itself. Long gone are the days of coaches passing out pads and helmets to neighborhood boys, organically assembling and developing a team.

To remain competitive, D.C. coaches have had to scout for talent and try to build relationships to lure talented players to their school.

Craig Jefferies, who became head coach at Dunbar in 1996, said coaches used to rely on “honor among thieves.” When he stepped down from the school in 2011, he was uncomfortable with the way recruiting and transfers had become too entrenched in the sport. “I really didn’t want to take transfers. I like to build my program from the ground up,” Jefferies said. “But at the rate the league was going, your hand was kind of forced to take transfers, because either you’re going to play with them or play against them.” Jefferies now coaches at Oxon Hill in Maryland.

Many coaches readily admit to recruiting young players — though not necessarily by walking the hallways of rival schools.

Sonny Price, the head coach at Phelps in Northeast, regularly scouts middle school football games and visits middle school campuses twice a week. He gives PowerPoint presentations, selling his school’s academics and fledging football program — sometimes offering young teens immediate playing time.

The new DCSAA transfer rules allow students to switch schools once without penalty during their freshman season. Price believes that under the new transfer regulations, more emphasis will be put on convincing players to choose schools early to avoid the steep price of transferring later.

“Recruit some kids that can come in and be impactful, and build your team around them,” Price said.

Coaches are also making use of the offseason and high school football’s newest frontier: 7-on-7 leagues. The bustling offseason circuit is often likened to AAU basketball and is the only part of the job that “scares” Wise Coach DaLawn Parrish, he said, because it operates independent of governing bodies such as DCSAA.

“When you start having your own 7-on-7 teams and personal training teams, although you may say you’re not recruiting, you’re attaching kids to you,” Parrish said. “If you do do that, you should tell them to stay at your own school.”

Trying to establish parity

A year after first proposing the transfer rule, Ray’s office faces a formidable challenge in policing it. When Ray first took the job two years ago, his voice mail was flooded with anonymous calls reporting rules violations, he said. It forced Ray to juggle up to 20 simultaneous investigations.

That prompted Ray to implement a new system: Complaints must be put into writing and signed. Once his office receives the complaint, Ray and his team will review documentation and decide if it warrants hiring a private investigator to step in.

“Folks like to tell on each other,” Ray said. “They all know what each other’s doing and they all are looking over each other’s shoulder. And if somebody is stepping out of line, they’re going to tell on them.”

From an educational standpoint, the constant movement of students is worrisome to school officials because studies have found students who frequently change schools are more likely to struggle in the classroom and less likely to graduate.

But there are other concerns, as well, some that have drawn the interest of law enforcement officials. District schools are only open to city residents, and the D.C. attorney general’s office has begun to crack down on Maryland and Virginia families who cross the city line for schooling. While these families are in theory required to demonstrate proof of residency, the school system lacks the resources to check the veracity of every transfer’s living situation, often until a formal complaint is filed. Charter schools charge $9,000 and more for non-resident tuition, and prosecutors are more aggressively trying to retrieve that money and protect D.C. taxpayers.

In the past year, the D.C. attorney general’s office has filed five cases against families from Prince George’s County who were sending their children to D.C. schools, and more investigations are underway. None of the cases currently on the docket involves student-athletes.

Ray is striving to maintain parity among teams, but coaches, parents and athletes point out there are many good reasons for students to seek a transfer. For many teenagers, the decision to change schools is sometimes based on academics or being near friends, family or a certain neighborhood. For a small percentage, it’s strictly a football decision, one often fueled by the hopes of landing a college scholarship.

Chrisdeion Alston had just finished his freshman year at Ballou when he heard that Dunbar might have an opening at quarterback over the summer. He knew he was on the clock and had to beat the new Aug. 1 deadline.

“I didn’t want to go. But if this was a better opportunity, I gotta do what I gotta do. Football is a business,” said Alston, who helped lead Dunbar to six wins this season. “Either way, wherever I go, I still gotta put on a uniform and play ball. I can still be loyal to whatever team I go to.”

First of two parts on the

shifting D.C. athletics landscape