Thus Spake the Super

Miami-Dade school chief Roger Cuevas is cracking down on sports abuses. Again.

Lack of institutional control. The phrase regularly appears on the sports pages, usually to describe a college athletic program run amok. In 1995, after the hammer fell on the rogue University of Miami football program, the NCAA reprimanded school leaders for their "lack of institutional control." Ditto for Notre Dame last year, after boosters flew football players around the nation. Same for the University of Minnesota, when school employees wrote term papers for basketball players. Lack of institutional control.

The expression now is being applied to high school athletic programs in Miami-Dade County, yet one more way scholastic sports has come to resemble big-time college programs. Two weeks ago the Greater Miami Athletic Conference (GMAC) decreed that Miami Jackson Senior High principal Louis Allen failed to control his school's football team. The scolding came in response to a New Times cover story ("Winning Is Everything," November 25, 1999), which revealed a host of ineligible transfer students on the team, many of whom lived with an assistant coach in a self-described football "boarding school." The GMAC stripped Jackson of every football win last season and fined the school $1000. Jackson's athletic director, Jake Caldwell, subsequently resigned.

This was just the latest in a string of sports-related scandals at county high schools. Two years ago, after New Times unearthed egregious recruiting violations by Miami Senior High, local and state officials dismantled the school's dynastic basketball program. Currently Jackson, along with three other schools, is the focus of a criminal investigation for allegedly changing the grades of athletes to ensure eligibility. The Miami Herald broke that story last year.

Roger Cuevas: A happy but sometimes uninformed leader
Steve Satterwhite
Roger Cuevas: A happy but sometimes uninformed leader

In the wake of the Miami High investigation, schools superintendent Roger Cuevas promised a crackdown. Cuevas oversees the GMAC and supervises all county principals. He ultimately is responsible for the integrity of sports throughout the system. Nearly two years ago he promised that any school caught breaking the rules would be severely punished. Yet, as New Times pointed out in the Jackson High investigation, very little has changed. Recruiting and transferring abuses continue.

Last week, for the first time since he became superintendent in 1996, Cuevas publicly discussed the state of high school sports in Miami. He met with New Times at his office on the ninth floor of the school administration building, just north of downtown. An early morning sun reflecting off the waters of Biscayne Bay shone onto his imposing wooden desk. To avoid the glare, Cuevas took a seat at a small octagon-shape conference table.

During the half-hour interview, Cuevas admitted he knows little more about the state of athletics than what he reads in the newspapers. His staff is afraid to tell him bad news. Still, he claims athletics have become a top priority. He wants Miami-Dade Public Schools to be the national model of a clean program. An ambitious goal. And a stunningly naive one.

What role is athletics supposed to play in the high schools of this county?

If you look at sports today, it has become much more than community pride, much more than building school spirit, much more than we ever thought it would be. I always looked at it as a vehicle to motivate children that are not connected with school. It's probably one of the best drop-out prevention tools we use to maintain kids in school. But it has evolved. College football is now at the pinnacle of ... let's say of entertainment. It's money-making. The pros are now THE entertainment thrust. Because of that I believe winning above all has become the banner, even at the high school level.

This superintendent doesn't buy that. And I gave my principals an ultimatum back in August of 1998 [following the Miami High scandal] that we needed to clean up our act.

There are only two individuals working in the office to oversee a massive athletic department. Probably in the '80s it was good. But in the year 2000, two people cannot monitor the size of the program. So we began to change things. We changed the policy last year on recruitment. I'm going to change it again this year, because I'm not happy. Certainly computer access to the grades was one area that I needed to review thoroughly. And we did change that: There are three individuals who can change [grades]. And I really had no idea how many were involved until we got into it.

Those are things that, thanks to the voices of the community, did not want to get to me, but got to the media. I've got to be thankful, because they allowed me to do administrative reviews of areas that perhaps needed some supervision and much more monitoring. We're not finished. As you know we're now dealing with our own police investigation, which is a move I decided to go ahead with since I am not satisfied, or maybe people have amnesia and do not remember what I said. The state attorney is involved because changing grades is an issue of fraud. It's fraud. And I think it's a good thing to investigate any time there is fraud. Worse than that, it teaches children the wrong thing.

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