The high-stakes prep football machine, and the high-pressure pipeline that leads from high school glory to college scholarships, were starkly portrayed in the 2015 documentary “Signing Day.” It followed three high school seniors with visions of trading in Friday night lights for Saturday afternoon TV cameras, hoping to perform one day on the biggest stage of all: Sundays in the NFL.
Summer skills camps, combines, body-fat measurements, recruiting courtships with fawning coaches, red-carpet campus visits meant to make a 17-year-old feel like Marshawn Lynch. A clip from an ESPN commentator in the film says it all: “College seems like the pros now, and high school seems like college.”
For those who missed the film, they can read recent headlines for a case study of the fast-and-loose values that can detract from the team-building virtues of prep sports. Look no further than Bellevue High School’s football program and a scandalous investigation released by the Washington Interscholastic Activities Association last week, which found “significant and long-standing violations” of state rules.
In its pursuit of 11 state titles over the last 16 years, and in its quest to help players advance to the next level, Bellevue reportedly recruited kids from other districts (including the Tacoma area) and turned a blind eye to questionable addresses students used to gain eligibility. Kids with poor grades allegedly were sent to a pricey “diploma mill,” their tuition paid by team boosters, to get their grades up.
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At the helm of this mess is revered head coach Butch Goncharoff, who was suspended two games last year for slipping an envelope to a cash-strapped player’s family. Evidence in the new probe supported that the booster club gave extra pay to Goncharoff and his assistants that wasn’t approved by the School Board.
The WIAA and the Bellevue School Board are sizing up the situation and considering a range of sanctions. Appropriately, the school board this week set a tone for punishing coaches and other adults complicit in any misconduct. Student-athletes shouldn’t be made out as scapegoats here.
The most egregious mistakes and harshest condemnation may rest with school district administrators who provided lax oversight. The investigation accuses them of “willful blindness” of the football program, and interference with investigators.
This is where Bellevue’s sad descent into the jaws of the football machine becomes a morality lesson for school leaders everywhere. It definitely shouldn’t be lost on South Sound educators whose athletes have lost to the Wolverines many times over the years.
Plenty of local teams have cultivated sour grapes by falling to Bellevue in the playoffs, including Peninsula – in the state quarterfinals, three years straight – Franklin Pierce, Sumner, Lakes and Auburn. And, as the News Tribune’s TJ Cotterill reported, plenty of local coaches have watched blue-chip talent run a deep route up the freeway to Bellevue under curious circumstances and dubious address changes.
So they can be forgiven if they feel their nemesis is getting its just desserts.
The most important reaction, however, is for administrators around the region to ensure their own priorities and principles aren’t out of whack – and that their protocols will catch it if they are. They should keep tabs on booster club spending, and thoroughly educate coaches in all sports on acceptable recruiting standards. They should retain records of student-athletes’ addresses for several years, and require athletic departments to physically check where players say they reside.
Above all, they should stay vigilant when a community is determined to build the next great dynasty, replacing Bellevue on the pedestal.
Giving kids a taste of state championships is fine. Giving them a shot at attending college on a football scholarship is great. But both are devalued immeasurably when sports program leaders, so skilled at delivering locker-room speeches about loyalty, honesty and accountability, don’t practice what they preach.