Anacostia’s Don'Tae Lee breaks free for extra yards against Wilson. The Indians took Wilson’s place in the Turkey Bowl after Wilson was found to have been using an ineligible player. (Jonathan Newton/The Washington Post)

Turkey Bowl: With Wilson disqualified, questions linger over state of D.C. high school sports

Dunbar Coach Jerron Joe stepped to the lectern for his Turkey Bowl luncheon speech on Monday afternoon amid loud applause from the crowd at the Acela Club inside Verizon Center.

The applause continued when he praised his players, coaches and the Dunbar administration, and when he acknowledged Anacostia Coach Cato June, who he’ll face in Thursday’s game.

But in the middle of the speech, when Joe said he was proud that each player in his program was eligible to play, the crowd fell silent. There was no applause. Joe quickly moved to a new subject.

Wilson students gather to protest the decision to disqualify the Tigers from Thursday’s Turkey Bowl. (Photo courtesy of @EgoSentric)

It was an awkward moment on a tumultuous day for D.C. Public Schools, which on Sunday removed Wilson from the Turkey Bowl after a month-long investigation revealed the program used an ineligible player earlier this season. Officials determined that Nico Jaleel Robinson, 17, who played in a majority of Wilson’s games, was ineligible after he was arrested in connection to the armed robbery of several University of Maryland students in October. Robinson was apprehended at his home in Greenbelt, sparking the investigation.

D.C. Mayor Vincent C. Gray and DCPS Athletic Director Stephanie Evans also spoke at the luncheon, and although no public mention of the incident came Monday, its presence could be felt. Across town, students at Wilson gathered in front of the school to protest the decision, which spoiled what would have been the program’s first appearance in the Turkey Bowl since 1991. Gray has vowed to change the landscape of high school athletics in the city with stricter enforcement of rules and regulations, but Sunday’s news left yet another dark cloud looming over one of the school district’s proudest traditions and renewed questions of how DCPS can solve a lingering local problem.

Wilson’s disqualification marks the second time in three years that a school has been removed from the Turkey Bowl in the days leading up to the championship game — Ballou was disqualified in 2010 for using an ineligible player in the playoffs — and the second time this season DCPS has levied sanctions against a school on the grounds of ineligibility. DCPS fired H.D. Woodson Coach Greg Woodson in October after it learned that Fuller used an ineligible player in a game earlier this season, which Woodson also had to forfeit.

“We hope this never happens again,” Gray said Monday, after the luncheon. “There have been more than one occasion. This is the second time this has occurred this year. We’ve had situations over the last two or three years where schools have broken rules.”

Wilson’s infraction could not have occurred at a more inconvenient time — just days before Thursday’s contest — but is unique in that DCPS launched its investigation after Robinson’s arrest.

“You’re going out and trying to find landlords and looking at utility bills . . . it’s pretty extensive. And in this case there were a number of people. I think we even consulted with Prince George’s County police,” Evans said. “Sometimes it’s easy and pieces fall into place, and sometimes they don’t. And it ends up dragging itself out.”

Bruce Williams, who has been the athletic director at Spingarn for two decades, said that ineligibility issues have haunted the school district for generations. Most inner-city programs have been forced to wade through sanctions for playing students who secretly reside in Maryland or Virginia — but athletic directors lack the resources to monitor and enforce enrollment, Williams said.

“It’s more than an athletic issue. It’s a social issue,” Williams said. “Most of my colleagues that are high school athletic directors in the District of Columbia have a full load of classes. So when the hell do we have the opportunity to go around, to be the investigative force on who enrolls in school and who does not? Actually, the system is broken. Never been fixed.”

Other programs in the city have struggled to even field a team over the last several seasons, including Theodore Roosevelt, which has forfeited its last two season openers due to a lack of players. Anacostia has had dangerously low numbers for several years, and both Gray and Evans applauded June, who is a first-year coach, for reviving the program this season in their remarks at the luncheon. Both of the leaders promised a festive environment on Thursday — but Gray also said that it comes at a controversial price.

“We want the games to be won on the field. We want the kids to have a great time,” Gray said, “and we want them to learn, you know, a good set of principles from all of this.”