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High Schools | Eric Sondheimer

An Overdue Transfer of Power

April 26, 2002|Eric Sondheimer

There was no popping of champagne corks, no dumping of Gatorade on someone's head, not even any high-fives.

A year ago, few would have predicted the Southern Section, made up of 529 schools, would vote overwhelmingly to make athletes who transfer without moving ineligible to compete at the varsity level for one year.

On Thursday in Long Beach, the vote to impose transfer restrictions beginning with the 2003-04 school year was anticlimactic because support had grown like a tidal wave, uniting private and public schools, athletic powers and weaklings.

Something changed. Call it outrage at the repeated, blatant attempts by parents and coaches to manipulate rules in the hope of winning.

Every school has been affected by transfers. Every principal has a story to tell. Every coach has an experience to relate.

It was time to return high school sports to its roots, where athletes are supposed to compete on a level playing field, learn life's lessons and may the best team win.

"It reached critical mass," said Gary Murphy, principal at West Hills Chaminade and one of the strongest supporters of transfer restrictions. "Everybody has been affected, where they've lost kids and gotten kids and didn't know what to do with them. It's dawning on people that nobody's going to rescue us, and we have to do it ourselves."

Since 1994, when the state Legislature passed the open-enrollment law to give parents the option of choosing schools outside their neighborhood, many high school programs have engaged in a game of brinkmanship.

Coaches and administrators have forgotten lessons about loyalty once taught by their parents and grandparents in favor of enrolling any teenager who walks in off the street and can run, jump or hit and help the team win immediately.

The examples of unworthy athletic exuberance helped generate an overflow of outrage.

In 1998, Mission Hills Alemany hired a club basketball coach, Darryl McDonald, to coach its boys' team. Three former club players attending nearby San Fernando transferred to Alemany, which went from 0-12 in league play the previous season to co-champion.

In 2000, running back De'Andre Scott of Alemany was tired of losing, so in the middle of the season, he transferred to Santa Fe Springs St. Paul. In his second game with St. Paul, he rushed for 115 yards and scored three touchdowns against Alemany, the school he had attended for three years when its football team went from winning to losing.

This winter, basketball player Mustafa Asghari of Woodland Hills Taft was removed from the team by his coach for not following instructions. He changed residences, enrolled at Van Nuys Birmingham and played in seven league games, twice facing his former teammates. After the season, Asghari tried to re-enroll at Taft with another address change so he could graduate with his friends, but the school refused to take him back.

Asked if he would allow Asghari to play immediately if he had to do it over again, Birmingham Coach Al Bennett declined to answer. But Bennett promised a new philosophy starting next season.

"I don't care if I win a game," he said. "I'm going to keep only the kids I can coach and that I can develop into a real team."

This month, Kevin Fitzpatrick, a junior third baseman at Woodland Hills El Camino Real, was stuck on the bench. He had only one at-bat when he quit the team and transferred to Reseda Cleveland, which was 0-3 in league play.

Fitzpatrick was put in Cleveland's starting lineup. He had a double on Monday in an upset of defending City champion Chatsworth. The player he replaced, sophomore third baseman Chris Honeycutt, had spent all summer, fall and spring working hard in the Cleveland program, only to lose his spot.

None of the transfers broke any rules, but were they appropriate and were the decisions by the coaches to play the transfer students ethically correct?

These are difficult, unresolved issues faced season after season because the number of transfers has reached record proportions.

The action taken by the Southern Section will discourage many from transferring, but not all. Parents with the financial resources can simply move and make their children eligible immediately. Others could find "redshirting" a year on junior varsity not so bad.

Hardship waivers will be available, but Southern Section Commissioner Jim Staunton warned that he'll approve only legitimate hardships that are "unforeseeable, unavoidable, uncorrectable acts."

The City Section has scheduled a vote for March 2003 to decide whether to approve similar transfer restrictions.

Of course, parents can always go to court and challenge the constitutionality of requiring their child to sit out one year of varsity competition for transferring without relocating.

But those on the front line don't seem to care. Only 11 league representatives out of more than 70 voted against the proposal. The landslide vote Thursday shows that people have decided to take a stand. They're fed up with individuals trying to disrupt the system.

"You can still choose your school," Murphy said. "Just do it before ninth grade. Maybe they'll take a little more time and effort in finding out what program they want. It will stabilize programs. It will make teams feel more secure. We're going to stick our necks out and if it hurts, it's still the right thing to do."

For doing the right thing in Long Beach, those brave athletic administrators deserve to celebrate. They've sent a message to the rest of the state: Enough is enough.

*

Eric Sondheimer can be reached at eric.sondheimer@latimes.com

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