CMS issues of eligibility called unusual

Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools' string of athletic-eligibility scandals dwarfs anything North Carolina has seen in recent memory, state athletic officials said Friday, after a fourth football team forfeited its 2007 season.

They say it's not that CMS is uniquely shady, but that a huge district has begun aggressively checking reports of athletes using false addresses, coaches illegally recruiting players and other violations.

Que Tucker, deputy director of the N.C. High School Athletic Association, said other districts might benefit from a “summer shake-up,” checking their own records and procedures before the 2008-09 season begins.

“Charlotte-Mecklenburg is not a corrupt school system,” Tucker said. “It's not that they suffer from weak leadership.”

She and Associate Executive Director Rick Strunk agree the scope of CMS's problems is highly unusual. But both note that CMS, which has 18 high schools with varsity sports, is far larger than any other except Wake County.

CMS officials announced Thursday that faculty and a volunteer coach at East Mecklenburg High were involved in illegally recruiting three football players and violating the ban on Sunday practices. The athletic director was demoted, two coaches were suspended and the team forfeited its 9-4 season.

South Meck, West Charlotte and Berry were also forced to forfeit their football seasons recently. And Deputy Superintendent Maurice Green says the district continues to check reports of violations.

Tucker, who has worked for the athletic association for 17 years and overseen violations for four, said before the CMS spate she was familiar with only one team forfeiting an entire season. In a handful of other cases, she said, teams forfeited several games.

Before the CMS investigations, most eligibility violations involved athletes who fell short on academic or attendance standards, she said. CMS has caught numerous athletes using bogus addresses to get into desirable sports programs, sometimes with parents forging documents to deceive school officials. So far 17 students have been declared ineligible and at least three others removed from a team because of eligibility questions.

District leaders came reluctantly to their crusade against cheaters.

The whole thing began with a boozy high school party in Union County last September.

A 15-year-old Providence High student wandered into nearby woods and passed out; his friends called the sheriff when they couldn't find him. That led to underage drinking charges against three Providence athletes; Observer reporters wanted to know why the football player hosting the party lived in another county.

CMS leaders initially insisted there was no systemic problem, blaming individual situations on honest mistakes and complicated family situations.

But Observer reporters kept turning up athletes using false or questionable addresses – including one West Charlotte football player whose false address was the home of in-laws of the school athletic director. Superintendent Peter Gorman eventually declared that the district would go all-out to preserve the integrity of its sports programs.

Gorman has said he'll unveil system-wide changes designed to prevent and punish cheating before school opens and fall sports begin in August. Tucker, like Gorman, blames CMS's woes partly on a culture that values winning teams and athletic scholarships more than playing by the rules. She doesn't believe that culture is limited to Mecklenburg.

“It's a sign of the times,” she said. “People don't value honesty the way they used to.”