By Chuck Strouse
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By Ciara LaVelle, Kat Bein, Carolina Del Busto, and Liz Tracy
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The investigation of illegal recruiting is in the hands of Dan Boyd. In a telephone interview from his Gainesville office, the FHSAA's associate commissioner is trying to explain what bothers him about this relatively new phenomenon. "I think importing foreign students for the primary purpose of playing sports is blatantly unfair and completely contrary to the spirit of amateur athletics and to interscholastic competition," he says in a deep Southern drawl. "What it amounts to is the school that can out-recruit the other ultimately wins the prize, which is the state championship.
"If you look at 99 percent of the schools in Florida, both private and public, the coach might see a gleam of potential in an athlete and work for years with that athlete, hoping the skills will be developed so the athletes can make contributions to a team effort," he continues. "What I've seen in some of these schools in Miami is these coaches are looking for a quick fix. We're not talking about development, but about going out and finding athletes who've already developed and bringing them in. If an entire team is brought in one year, and if every player is playing their first year of sports in Florida, there is not a chance that this is happening by coincidence. It's being orchestrated behind the scenes."
Today Boyd's FHSAA finds itself in a situation similar to that experienced by the International Olympic Committee a couple of decades ago. Throughout the Seventies and Eighties, the Olympics struggled to remain an amateur competition in the face of growing professionalism in track and field, downhill skiing, and other sports. The Olympic ideal, that athletics are but one component of a well-rounded life, eventually was abandoned; the games are now played primarily by elite, well-paid professionals.
It would be naive to deny the growing professionalism of high school sports. Street recruiters scour local gymnasiums across America in search of undiscovered talent they can exploit. Colleges compete ferociously for the loyalties of talented players, almost as ferociously as athletic-shoe companies, which court players into Adidas and Nike camps in hopes of cashing in should the players ever turn pro. Some ambitious high schools construct basketball factories in hopes of boosting enrollment or securing lucrative endorsement contracts or, occasionally, just to satisfy the human desire to triumph.
If there ever could be a refuge from the business aspect of sports, though, Class 1A and Class 2A basketball would appear to be it. The starting lineups of most teams at this level are filled with the overweight, the short, and the blissfully average amateur athlete. "Your typical Class 1A basketball game is hard to look at," says Claude Grubair, coach of Class 3A Ransom Everglades in Miami. "Yet now, because of recruiting, some of these schools are considered the elite."
The chasm between average 1A and 2A teams and exceptional teams is causing strain on both sides. Two seasons ago, after several extraordinary foreign transfers upgraded expectations at Northwest Christian, coach Anthony Pujol spoke of the mediocrity of most 1A teams as something he would have to endure. "Our mission is to win the district and make it through the playoffs and back to state," he told the Miami Herald. "It's not to beat up on teams that can't compete with us. If they are 1A and we must play, then we will do our best to make it a fair game."
More than a few of those teams Pujol labored not to embarrass would rather not even step on the court, says Jeffrey Peterson, principal of Princeton Academy, another small school located outside Homestead. "We don't think that fielding a virtual semipro team is good for the overall health of our school," Peterson remarks. Princeton used to dress a pretty good basketball team, prior to the foreign invasion. "If the FHSAA would have allowed these schools to continue to recruit, we, along with some of the schools who won't play the recruiting game, would have been faced with dropping out and forming our own end-of-the-year tournaments. We would just kind of assemble our own league."
The arms race in boys basketball didn't start in Miami. It actually began in the Panhandle, at Malone, a small school located near the Alabama border. For five years, starting in 1993, Malone won five straight small-school state championships. Vanquished teams included ACE, Champagnat, and Northwest Christian. After suffering this dynasty for a few years, local schools realized they needed to beef up their talent if they were ever going to dethrone the champs. By adding top foreigners to their rosters, Miami schools became competitive with Malone, and ultimately superior. In last year's championship, Northwest Christian defeated Champagnat. Malone had lost in the semifinals.
"[Northwest Christian coach Anthony] Pujol took three steps onto the basketball court -- one for each year his team has made it to the state finals -- and got down on his knees," the Herald lovingly recalled in an article the day after the 1999 championship. "Pujol leaned forward onto his two palms and kissed the glossy purple floor once -- a confirmation of the first state championship in the school's history. 'Thank you,' Pujol murmured as he rose to his feet, wiping his teary eyes. Pujol never said another word. He slowly walked alone out the access tunnel to outside the arena. There his silence was shattered when he was mobbed by 300 Eagles fans, and the hugs and celebration once again started."