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.

When the state athletic council investigated Miami High two years ago, they alleged that grades may have been changed for athletes at that school. Athletic directors around the county contend that grade changing is a common practice.

I hope not! It isn't easy. It's like a ship that has been going on since the '30s. There's a lot of tradition. There's a lot of alumni pride. There's a lot of school pride. And there's a lot of community pride.

You say you hope not, yet two years after the Florida High School Activities Association [FHSAA] alerted you to the problem, the Herald comes out with an exhaustive and conclusive story about grade changing at several schools. Were you surprised when you read that story?

Yeah, because I thought I made it very clear to them that I mean business. I felt betrayed in a way. Here I am, I'm really trying to make it better for all, especially the children; we've got to teach them what is right, and it's still going on. Like I said, I don't have enough staff, only two people to supervise both men's and women's sports. I have reached the capacities of my staff. I have to go beyond and ask for help. And I gotta thank you guys for bringing to light some things that people would probably never tell me. Because I know I'm upset that's going on. So they probably don't want to talk to me.

You 're showing gratitude, which is nice. I was going to ask you if it 's embarrassing that the media is uncovering this.

No. No. I think because of the hard-line position that I took, I probably pushed away people from coming to me and telling me. Yet still it went on. I hope that in the next year that we change more policy to make it stricter. There's always more you can do. There's always a better way of doing it. And I had no idea I was going to be dealing with athletics as a problem. My problem is reading. I push academics.

You say newspapers are reporting things and are being helpful. And you say you have only two people on your staff addressing these problems. It makes me wonder: Do you have control over the institution of athletic sports?

Well, that's what I'm looking at right now. [Sports] has absolutely grown. It has absolutely escalated. And I need to look at how we address athletics in the district. Let me put it this way: We allow the schools to sort of self-govern.... No, I don't think it's embarrassing. I think it was a crime to [change grades for] youngsters.

How about punishment? Jackson High was ordered to forfeit every football game last year. Their principal received a written reprimand and they were fined $1000.

I'm not through yet!

That might be good, because it seems an awful lot like no punishment, to lose games already played and pay a thousand dollars when they 've made tens of thousands of dollars in profit from the success of an illegal football team....

Now [the investigation of the grade changing] is in the hands of the school police and the State Attorney's Office. I can't discuss that, but we're not through. I hope I can clean it up. I hope during my tenure I was the superintendent who was able to bring honor and integrity to high school sports in this country. Note what I said: in this country.

What do you mean by "country? "

I think there's an attitude of winning above all, and I think we need to change that. Our schools are here to produce a work force. A work force that either goes to work directly or goes into the college ranks. That is our purpose, not to win sports activities. It's fine to do that, but I think [our] primary purpose is to develop a citizen that is able to participate in our community, with gainful employment and participation in the democratic process. But you have to teach that. And if you teach them it's fine to change grades, it doesn't send a good message.

For years, ever since the Miami High story, I 've been forbidden to talk to the two people who run the GMAC, Fred Rodgers and Wayne Story. Almost every athletic director I call tells me they are not allowed to talk to the media or they will be fired.

They will be fired?

That 's what they tell me. You 've thanked the media for exposing some of these problems, yet the culture of the school system makes it very hard for the media to examine anything. It 's almost as if it would be better if problems weren 't examined.

No. No. Let me put it the easiest way: I want to portray an image of transparency. In other words we're not hiding anything. Transparency. But what happens is the media will interview a principal, the coach, the athletic director, a parent, the student. You will get five different stories. I have seen that happen over and over again. There doesn't seem to be consistency.

Okay.

So the only reason we do that is to maintain consistency. But nobody's getting fired for speaking to the media. That would be ludicrous.

There seem to be problems if these incredibly blatant things are allowed to continue and are only exposed and dealt with when newspapers look at them. That is the clear pattern of what 's happening.

The grade changing, that is very difficult for the district to supervise and monitor. There's no way for me to do it. Like I said, my priority is academic and reading, not athletics. I'm making it [a priority]. Because we do have the premier athletic program. When you hear the Dolphins playing and you hear some players ... it's kind of fun to know some of them come out of the high school program in Florida. Florida has a great athletic program. There's no need for what's going on when you already have the farm team. To abuse [the system] is wrong. It's a crime. And that's my contention.

It 's hard to argue with your contention.

I've been trying to get reading scores up. I spent most of my first year [as superintendent] trying to get a comprehensive reading plan. Then I hear about Miami High, so I meet with senior high principals. I give them an ultimatum. And dammit, it's not being followed. Now I have made this a priority. There will be changes. The district will be much more involved in the monitoring. We have to, obviously. I'm glad, in a way, you're helping us. We will be an example of how a premier high school program is run.

ra.powell@miaminewtimes.com

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