A High School Fouls Out

Newsweek, May 31, 1991
Assignment: An Atlanta high school landed in the national spotlight with an unusual scandal involving the NCAA and Clemson University.

On the dishonor roll of schools tainted by athletic recruitment scandals, there's an unlikely new entrant. Sure, the allegations are familiar enough: misuse of booster club funds, tampering with transcripts, altered grades, players "brokered" to universities. And, as usual, the charges have prompted investigations by school officials and the NCAA. But if you think it's another instance of malfeasance at UNLV or some other high-stakes athletic powerhouse, think again: the basketball program under scrutiny is at Southside Comprehensive High School in Atlanta, a highly regarded public school opened only six years ago. Sighs principal Joseph Carpenter, whom the Atlanta Board of Education transferred to Southside in wake of the erupting controversy: "The more I know about it, the less I want to know about it."

Carpenter is likely to be hearing more, not less, in the near future. The Southside case has provided the NCAA an unusually complete look into the recruiting practices in effect at one high school. This happens less often that one might think: Although many violations of NCAA recruiting regulations occur at the secondary level, the organization has no jurisdiction over high schools or their programs. The Atlanta Board of Education, however, is so troubled by the allegations here that it has provided NCAA access to a number of academic records involving basketball recruits who wound up at a half-dozen universities over the years.

The immediate controversy began in fall of '89, when Southside High's top basketball prospect, Wayne Buckingham, now 21, arrived at Clemson University. Under coach David Jones, the talented forward had led Southside's team to a state championship two years ago, averaging 23 points and 11 rebounds a game. (By all accounts, Jones too is a talented coach: even without Buckingham, his team was statewide runner-up in its division last year.) Clemson was glad to have the 6'9", 245-lb. power player -- at the time, in fact, Tigers coach Cliff Ellis praised Buckingham as one of the most promising recruits ever to arrive at Clemson.

But Clemson officials were confused as to how to evaluate Buckingham's transcript from Southside. NCAA regulations -- Proposition 48, specifically -- require that freshmen players meet certain academic standards in order to play, including having passed a number of "core courses" in high school. Clemson was aware that Buckingham had transferred to Southside from Cascade High School in Wartrace, Tenn., just before his junior year. To determined his eligibility -- these days, Clemson is very particular about athletes' eligibility under NCAA guidelines -- officials obtained a copy of the Cascade transcript, then asked the NCAA about whether certain courses could be described as "core" courses and exactly how to translate the grades from Cascade (an "A" requires a higher numerical average at Cascade than it does at Southside). While the NCAA evaluated the situation, Buckingham played his freshman year at Clemson, where the Tigers made it to the regional semifinals before losing to 71-70 to Connecticut.

By spring of '90, however, NCAA investigators had serious reservations about Buckingham's eligibility: they found that he had taken special education English courses at Cascade that were not so described on the transcript from Southside. Suspicious NCAA officials contacted Lester Butts, superintendent of Atlanta schools, and Southside High staff in order to have a closer look at Buckingham's records. By coincidence, senior school-board staffers had been hearing allegations from the disgruntled parents of Southside basketball players that Buckingham had received preferential treatment while enrolled at the school and that the athletic program was engaged in improper recruiting practices overall.

By October -- the wheels of justice move slowly -- a cursory inspection of Southside's records seemed to substantiate some of the charges. To its credit, the Atlanta Board of Education appointed a three-man investigative committee to take an in-depth look at Southside's basketball program. On Dec. 19, the NCAA informed Clemson that Buckingham was ineligible because he had not met "Prop 48" requirements. As he already had played his freshman year, the association ruled Buckingham ineligible to play this year.

The NCAA refuses to discuss its ongoing investigation. Horrified school-board officials, however, have not been so reluctant. Buckingham, they say, probably is not culpable for they claim was pattern of academic fraud at Southside. Says Joseph G. Martin, president of the Atlanta Board of Education, of the Buckingham case: "That's where the facts are most blatant. Others situations are just as disquieting, we're finding."

Since they began questioning present and former Southside basketball players, coaches, and administrative staff, board investigators claim they have discovered evidence that athletes at the school were given credit for courses they did not take; that someone altered their grades and transcripts to enhance their acceptability to colleges under Prop 48 guidelines; that athletes were allowed to attend school even though they didn't live in the district; that grade books from classes in which athletes were enrolled are missing; that players may have been "brokered" to colleges by school officials in return for unspecified compensation; and that public funds from the system and from the private athletic booster club may have co-mingled and misused.

Though the investigation is not yet complete, Superintendent Butts last April suspended without pay Willie Fussell, the director of Southside's community night-school program who also handled money from athletic department funds. "As best we can tell, a lot of the monies were co-mingled," says Martin. "At a minimum, it appears to be a violation of the school's operating policies." According to Martin, the NCAA is investigating whether any of the booster money came from colleges interesting in recruiting Southside prospects. (Clemson, however, does not appear to be an object of suspicion. More about that below.)

At the request of the school board, Fulton County District Attorney Lewis Slaton last week agreed to investigate charges that booster club money was misused. Of specific concern are several checks made out to cash and others that were post-dated. Butts has recommended that Southside's community director be fired; Fussell, who has denied wrongdoing, has appealed his dismissal to the full board. A hearing is set for mid-June. Fussell's attorney, William McKenney, did not return repeated phone calls from Newsweek.

Butts also has transferred Southside's principal, Charles N. Hawk Jr., to administrative duties at a district office. Hawk, who is now technically on medical leave because of knee surgery, denies wrongdoing, but board officials are angry that the alleged improprieties happened on his watch at the school. Two other staffers, basketball coach David Jones and guidance counselor Camilla Ziegler, whom board investigators claim handled athlete transcripts, have not been censured, but two board officials say they fully expect to take action against them in the near future. Jones, who has not been speaking with reporters, declined Newsweek's interview request, passed on through Carpenter. Investigators say Ziegler has been missing from Southside for a month and that they have not been able to locate her; Newsweekalso could not reach the counselor for comment.

Investigators for both the NCAA and the school board are zeroing in on another mystery: how Buckingham got to Southside in the first place. After his sophomore year at Cascade, school officials say, Buckingham moved to Atlanta to live with a relative and enrolled at Southside. His family, however, stayed behind in tiny Bell Buckle, Tenn. Says Hal Skelton, principal at Cascade: "I've been asked by everybody in the country, but I just don't know why he left." Cascade's basketball coach, James Cotham, "was extremely surprised," says Skelton. "He and I discussed it at length. Someday we'd like to know why [Buckingham] left."

So would the NCAA. As a transfer, Buckingham was ineligible to play his junior year at Southside. At this point, investigators are not sure why Buckingham moved, but an unnamed basketball coach at another city high school told //The Atlanta Journal-Constitution// that in 1987 he was approached by an assistant basketball coach from Middle Tennessee State University (MTSU), also unnamed, about taking in the promising player. The understanding, he alleges, was that Buckingham would be steered back to MTSU by the coach after his senior year.

MTSU officials have denied that the college had anything to do with trying to place Buckingham at an Atlanta area school, but basketball coach Bruce Stewart has admitted that the NCAA is investigating the possibility at the MTSU campus.

Buckingham has declined to talk to reporters about his transcript or Southside generally. His South Carolina attorney did not return Newsweek's repeated phone calls; neither did his mother, Bertie Buckingham, in Bell Buckle, Tenn. Buckingham's phone at Clemson went unanswered; the regular school season has ended.

Officials at Clemson claim the school is no longer under suspicion by the NCAA. " They wanted to know what we knew and when we knew it," says Paul Aaron, the university's director of institutional compliance. "I don't think there's any question that something was amiss with the information we got, which was purported to be official. The transcript we got did not indicate anything other than that he had moved from a small place in Tennessee." According to Aaron, the NCAA has cleared Buckingham to play next year because it does not believe he was directly involved in or know about the alleged improprieties: "They NCAA has told him, as far as they're concerned...he will remain eligible," says Aaron. This may also be a sign that the NCAA does not believe Clemson contributed to Southside's booster fund or engaged in improper recruiting.

That's doubtless a great relief. The NCAA sanctioned Clemson's football team in 19tk for violating recruiting regulations. If found guilty of a second violation in a major sport in less than five years, the NCAA could temporarily suspend the university's participation in either sport.

The Southside case is only the most recent installment in an ongoing controversy over collegiate recruiting practices at high schools. According to the National Federation of State High School Associations, some 5.1 million high-school kids were involved in varsity sports during the '89-'90 school year, the latest year for which statistics are available; of these, 517,000 boys and 390,000 girls played basketball. Yet the NFSHSA does not enforce high-school sports regulations, including those governing college recruitment, on a national basis, as does the NCAA. Enforcement is left to each state's sports association, and the regulations they uphold often vary from state to state. In some states there may be more than one governing association. All in all, then, the responsibility for monitoring what goes on in high-school coaching offices is considerably more diffuse than it is at the college level. Who enforces the recruitment rules at a school like Southside?

"I don't think anybody really does," says Aaron. "I've been doing this for a while now, and one thing that amazes me is how little high schools do about regulating their process. 'Exploitation' is a big word, but it's a valid adjective to describe what happens. The high school coach is in a position to say 'Yes, you can talk to my kid' and 'No, you can't.'" Coaches may provide transcripts or drag their feet, Aaron notes, and the recruits tend to listen to their advice, making it easier to steer them a particular colleges.

Says one recruiting official at a major university, who asked not to be named: "Everyone looks at college athletics and says, 'Boy, that's a real problem.' But there's at least as big a problem at high schools, especially with the brokering of players. And there's a lot of coaches or boosters giving $1,000 here and there, even $10,000. That all goes on at the high-school level."

To those ostensibly involved in the business of educating children, including athletes, the transformation of the high-school gym into a sort of meat market is quite upsetting...especially when it's happening under one's own nose. Says Martin: "What troubles us is that ofttimes the real needs of youngsters were sacrificed. Certainly they became puppets in a larger game.

"The pressures and temptations are so intense now that there's a lot of risk. Many communities served by the Atlanta public schools are disadvantaged areas [where] athletic competition is the road to success in life....The pressures on our coaches and the temptations of our kids -- the source of these is not what's happening at Southside, but what's happening at the college level. It's filtering down."

An NCAA Scandal