Credit: Photo by Darrow Montgomery

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Anthony Johnson, the athletic director at Bishop McNamara High School in Forestville, Md., learned on the morning of Sept. 2 that his school’s varsity football game wasn’t going to take place that night. Johnson’s squad had been slated to face Coolidge Senior High School of the District of Columbia Interscholastic Athletic Association, the league for the city’s public high school teams.

“People from Coolidge told us around 11 a.m. that they couldn’t line up security guards, so they were canceling it,” Johnson says. “I’ve been here 20 years and I’d never heard that one before.” The D.C. school, it seems, had stopped looking for guards at least eight hours before kickoff.

A week earlier, Coolidge officials had offered another novel excuse to back out of a meeting with Archbishop Carroll High School, a game that was scheduled to be the season opener for both teams. Carroll Athletic Director George Leftwich says his Coolidge counterpart told him that his players hadn’t had enough full-contact workouts to play a real game.

The reason for the lack of practice? “They said it was the earthquake,” Leftwich says. Coolidge’s AD, Keino Wilson, defends his team’s failures to show up, citing “safety reasons.”

Carroll administrators offered to move the game to the following Monday so Coolidge could get more workouts in. Coolidge initially accepted. But they reneged the night before the makeup, citing rain. The game was never played.

The multiple excuses left Leftwich sad, mad, and confused. “I mean, yeah, there was an earthquake, but it was over,” he says. “Other schools had the earthquake, too, and they could play. I didn’t get it.”

Coolidge is perhaps D.C.’s most prominent public school football program, thanks to the hiring last year of Natalie Randolph, believed to be the nation’s only female varsity head football coach. Randolph made the cover of Parade magazine, and her presence explains why ESPN filmed last year’s matchup against Carroll. But in other ways, the team is pretty typical of a DCIAA squad: Carroll, for instance, won that ESPN game in a blowout. And so far this year, Coolidge is hardly the only District of Columbia Public Schools team to have trouble even getting its players out on the gridiron.

Take Ballou Senior High School, the 2006 city champ and a perennial contender in the Turkey Bowl, the annual Thanksgiving battle to determine the city’s top squad. The Knights also didn’t play either of their first two scheduled games. Their season opener was scrapped because rival Roosevelt Senior High School—another DCIAA team—couldn’t dress 18 eligible players, the required minimum. A week later, Ballou canceled its game with KIPP, a fledgling charter school in Anacostia, because Ballou couldn’t find a medical doctor to work the sidelines, as required by league rules. DCPS’ official explanation has since shifted to blaming Ballou’s failure to hire adequate security.

Cardozo Senior High School had to forfeit its Sept. 2 opener against Options Public Charter School, also for a lack of eligible players. The next week, Cardozo and DCIAA rival Anacostia Senior High School were scheduled to play an official game on the evening of Sept. 9. That contest took place, but it was taken off the books for reasons DCIAA won’t disclose. Anacostia staffers say, instead, the teams met that afternoon in “a scrimmage,” and that no official stats were kept. It’s a strange assertion, since scrimmages are ordinarily held only in the preseason, and the change leaves each school with just eight regular season games scheduled for 2011.

Then there’s Dunbar High School, the Shaw school whose alums include NFL players Vontae Davis, Vernon Davis, Arrelious Benn, Josh Cribbs, and Nate Bussey. But even Dunbar has been a mess this year. Its Labor Day game against Paul Laurence Dunbar High School of Baltimore was stopped in the second half because of an on-field brawl. Players from the D.C. school, which was getting blown out when the fight started, were blamed for inciting the brouhaha. The Washington Post reported last week that Willie Jackson, DCPS’ interim athletic director and overseer of DCIAA, ruled Dunbar must forfeit upcoming games against Cardozo and Bell Multicultural High School; the school has fired first-year coach Ashaa Cherry for letting ineligible players on the team.

A few DCIAA schools were, in the end, able to find enough players, security guards, and doctors to actually play ball over the holiday weekend. Alas, the results of the games that were played paint an even more brutal picture of the sorry state of D.C. high school football.

H.D. Woodson High School, the reigning DCIAA champion, put up just 63 yards of offense while being shut out 48-0 by the Martinsburg High School Bulldogs at their West Virginia campus.

McKinley Technology High school lost 39-0 to Suitland High School of Prince George’s County.

Anacostia lost 41-0 at Morgantown High School, another West Virginia school.

Spingarn High School lost 56-0 at Edmondson-Westside High School, a Baltimore trade school.

Roosevelt lost 54-0 at Maryland’s North Hagerstown High School.

Every one of these games were subjected to the “slaughter rule,” which limits one team’s ability to run up the score in a lopsided game. It’s a rule we’ll likely see more of as the season progresses. DCIAA football, these days, is getting slaughtered. And the story of just why that is involves some ugly truths about life and education in the District of Columbia. In a school system that spends a lot of time talking about reform, varsity sports remain a conspicuous example of adults letting kids down.

“It’s embarrassing,” says Arnold Hudson Sr.

Hudson makes his assessment of the state of DCIAA football while sitting in the grandstand at Roosevelt, where the Rough Riders are hosting Pittsburgh’s Langley High School.

Hudson has two kids on the Roosevelt squad. He also went to school there, class of ’86, and played ball himself. He wanted his boys to play at his alma mater, too, so he enrolled them out-of-boundary at the Petworth school.

Hudson says he doesn’t understand why Roosevelt forfeited its opening game for an alleged lack of eligible bodies. He’s not happy that a lot of kids on the squad weren’t allowed to play against North Hagerstown, either. “There’s 33 kids on the team tonight,” he says, pointing to the home bench. “I don’t know why they said there wasn’t enough [to play Ballou]. Those things didn’t happen when I played.”

The eligibility snafus are dooming Roosevelt this week, too. As Hudson talks, eight kids wearing orange Roosevelt jerseys—but no pads or football pants—are watching the game standing behind the bench. The boys, some of whom are very large, see Langley score on a fourth and goal from the one yard line with 17 seconds left to win the game, 14-8. Roosevelt remains winless.

Keeping those large bodies behind the bench certainly didn’t help this game. And it wouldn’t have hurt to have had those kids on the field in that 54-0 whacking Roosevelt took from North Hagerstown a week earlier.

Moments after the final gun, I ask Roosevelt head coach and athletic director Daryl Tilghman about the kids in street clothes. Turns out Hudson isn’t the only one confused by their non-participation.

“Those guys, that’s all eligibility issues, physicals or transcripts or something,” says Tilghman, a big body himself, with a shrug and a roll of the eyes. “Paperwork. That’s what I’m told [by DCIAA]. I don’t know when they’ll get to play. Next week? I don’t know. That’s not up to me.”

It’d be easy to paint this kind of shenanigans as a byproduct of poverty, stuff that’s inevitable in a school system so worried about teaching kids to read and write that it doesn’t have time to focus on extracurriculars like sports.

Not so long ago, in fact, you could find ample visual evidence for this theory all over the District. Back in 2003, Spingarn’s Green Wave played their home games on a dustbowl because nobody at the school knew how to work the sprinkler system installed courtesy of a donation from the Washington Redskins. The team’s locker rooms didn’t have hot water. “I have to pay for my own footballs to practice with,” coach John “Peterbug” Matthews told me at the time.

But in the years since, D.C. has gone on a facilities building boom, which makes it hard to chalk up this year’s calamitous start to funding woes. The field at Roosevelt, on which the home team has just lost once again, is the product of a publicly funded $20 million upgrade of six DCIAA stadiums launched by DCPS in 2008. It’s an amazing facility, with a big scoreboard, a state-of-the-art artificial turf field, and a fancy press box. Even the bench that the eight ineligible kids in street clothes stood behind is new. All DCIAA schools have gotten the same upgrades.

It’s also hard to blame the kids: To judge by the makeup of NCAA and NFL rosters, the athletic talent pool in D.C. remains as deep as any jurisdiction in the country.

Which leaves old-timers like Tilghman, a former Roosevelt player who’s been coaching there for 24 years, worrying about the state of the game here. The past few years have offered a succession of embarrassments. Last November, Ballou was tossed out of the Turkey Bowl less than 24 hours before kickoff after league officials ruled the team had ineligible players on its roster. In 2008, Eastern Senior High School forfeited its entire season for lack of eligible players. In 2010, according to results tabulated by the omnibus website dcsportsfan.com, Eastern was outscored 293-0 on the season. The school doesn’t have a varsity football team this year, so its upgraded stadium is going unused on fall Fridays.

“It’s an unfortunate situation,” says Todd Bradley, the editor of dcsportsfan.com and one of the most knowledgeable followers of the area’s prep football scene. “On one hand, you have this league with such a great history. There have been so many talented football players from the DCIAA who have made it to the NFL and had successful careers. But in recent years the league has really tarnished its reputation. Scheduling a game with a team from the DCIAA has become a crapshoot. You may play, you may not. Teams can only show up to the field and hope for the best.”

Tilghman is hoping that the sad state of this city’s boys of fall will be temporary. “Everything comes in cycles. Everything comes in phases,” adds Tilghman. “The shutouts, the paperwork problems, maybe this is just a bad cycle, a bad phase. At some point maybe it’ll pick back up. When I was coming up we didn’t have these problems.”

D.C.’s public high school football collapse comes just as the competitive landscape is changing.

Public and Catholic leagues are no longer the only games in town. Friendship Collegiate Academy, a charter school near Fort Mahan that emphasizes football but doesn’t even have its own football field, has come out of nowhere to become the city’s top football school. The team has a hard time finding competition, because they’re too good to even be included in the charter school league; it’s been difficult to arrange one-off matches with other local teams who fear a matchup with Friendship would mean slaughter. The school opened its season with an away game—in Cincinnati—that was nationally televised by ESPN.

Unsurprisingly, the school has become a safe haven for disgruntled DCIAA gridiron talent, further diminishing the likelihood that the next NFL generation will feature as many DCPS alums as the current one.

“I know [Friendship’s] got a couple kids from Roosevelt on their team now,” one Rough Rider parent at the Langley game tells me. “And I don’t blame the kids.”

DCIAA doesn’t exactly look ready to fight back. The turmoil of the 2011 season comes at a time when the league is essentially leaderless. In June, Marcus Ellis resigned as DCPS athletic director after two non-astonishing years on the job. Willie Jackson, a former middle school principal who has no experience as an athletic administrator, was given the job on an interim basis.

If DCIAA cares about its kids’ accomplishments, officials don’t go out of their way to demonstrate it. In an era where every midget football squad has its own web page, DCIAA football has no web presence. Parents and boosters say they can barely reach the interim athletic chief on the phone. “Willie Jackson won’t answer to anybody,” a Roosevelt football parent tells me. “I tried to find out why he wouldn’t let Roosevelt play Ballou, why he had so many Roosevelt players declared ineligible. He wouldn’t tell me anything. I’m a parent! I’m an involved parent, and I can’t find out anything.”

I know the feeling. I reached Jackson at the DCPS offices after he hadn’t responded to several emails and phone calls from Washington City Paper over the last month. He said DCPS hadn’t given him “permission” to answer any of my questions.

After I passed my questions on to Jackson’s boss, DCPS Chancellor Kaya Henderson, her office issued a statement saying that the agency has dealt with the issues that have crippled DCIAA football in the beginning weeks of the 2011 season. “This year, some of our schools have not followed the rules, which has resulted in forfeits,” the statement explained. “In response to the few instances in which football games were forfeited, procedural information related to security requests has been reiterated to principals and athletic directors within DCPS. All schools now have the required amount of eligible players.”

Nowadays, there’s fewer leaders who even remember when DCIAA was competitive, since many of the city’s top coaches have recently left. Craig Jefferies, the Dunbar head coach who took his team to the Turkey Bowl for 11 straight years, left this year for a job at the University of New Mexico. Horace Fleming, who spent 29 years coaching at Wilson High School, was canned last season. Jason Lane, a longtime DCIAA coach at Coolidge and McKinley, quit as the latter school’s head coach this summer. At the end of the 2009 season, Willie Stewart, a DCIAA mainstay who’d coached in the league for more than four decades, was fired because, according to the Washington Post, the principal didn’t like his “players’ behavior” on campus.

“You lose good men, that’s going to have an impact,” says Troy Mathieu, a former DCPS athletic director.

Bradley, of dcsportsfan.com, sees the advent of Friendship as the shape of things to come.

“I wouldn’t be surprised to see charter schools surpass DCIAA schools on the football field in the near future,” he says. “It kind of feels like college football right now with all the realignment talk. As bad as people want the league to succeed, the DCIAA will never be the same. Those days are over.”

The traditional public school league, Bradley says, has rotted from the top down.

“You wonder who is in charge,” he says. “How can the administration consistently let down high school athletes?”

DCPS lost Troy Mathieu after just 10 months.

Mathieu, who’d been athletic director for the Dallas Independent School District and Grambling University, knew things were a mess when Michelle Rhee hired him as DCPS athletic director in 2008. He thought he could fix the system. “I tried,” he says.

Mathieu is now athletic director for the Grand Prairie Independent School District in Texas. He says he’s been following DCIAA’s recent debacles. “You’re in this business to find ways to get kids to play,” he says. “That’s not happening” in D.C.

Mathieu says he studied DCPS’ athletic woes before taking the job, and came up with a plan of attack. But during his days here, he says, Rhee never took school sports seriously. In 2009, she didn’t show up for the biggest basketball event her constituents put on each year, the DCIAA championship. (She was seen that same night at a Cal–UCLA basketball game in Berkeley, alongside her NBA veteran boyfriend, Kevin Johnson.)

Rhee spokesman Hari Sevugan denies Rhee cold-shouldered Mathieu, and adds that his boss “gave [Mathieu] the support he needed.”

“As chancellor, Michelle Rhee took meetings with any staff member, parent or student who requested one, including Mr. Mathieu even though he didn’t report to her directly,” Sevugan says.

One Mathieu friend tells a tale of the city’s athletic director begging the chancellor for a meeting. “After months of this, when they finally got together for their one meeting,” says the friend, “Rhee just looked at her BlackBerries—yes, BlackBerries—for 10 minutes and didn’t even look at him. Troy wanted to quit right there.”

Asked about the accuracy of the tale, Mathieu just laughs. “I want to stay positive,” he says.

But in an interview, he did share some of the ideas he’d tried to pitch:

  • Assign school principals the responsibility for eligibility issues—the single biggest cause of DCIAA’s image woes. “In that situation, the reputation and trust is put on the principal at each school, and they’re accountable and their jobs are on the line. In D.C., all that responsibility is put on the central office. The schools just drop hundreds and hundreds of folders off and the [DCPS athletic director] is responsible for checking them. It’s nasty. When the first stack lands in the office, you want to run out and scream. The highest-ranked folks in the central office spend all their time doing clerical work, checking birth certificates, checking physicals, even checking report cards and getting out their calculators to figure out grade point averages….I’m not aware of any place that does it in such a manual fashion as D.C.”
  • Pay assistant coaches. During a 1970s budget crunch, the school board stopped paying junior varsity coaches, and slashed pay for varsity deputies. “When I was there they paid for the head coach and two assistants,” Mathieu says. “And the stipend for the two assistants was just $1,200 to $1,500 for a whole season…I know several schools where they would take that stipend and try to get four or five people to share that, just to cover gas money.” Mathieu says by reinstituting stipends for assistants, schools would have an easier time getting teachers involved in coaching. More teachers coaching would mean fewer ineligible players sneaking in, and fewer forfeits.
  • Drop the rule that a doctor has to be on the sidelines. “It looks good on paper, but in the real world it causes too many problems,” Mathieu says. “You just can’t get doctors for every game. When I was there, every time there was a schedule change for a game or an emergency at the hospital, we didn’t have a doctor. When I was there, doctors’ groups were telling their members not to work the games for liability concerns. A licensed athletic trainer is good enough in most areas.” Anything that will result in fewer cancellations is a step up.
  • Get rid of the fifth-year student athlete rule. In 2007, Rhee permitted fifth-year high schoolers an extra year of athletic eligibility. For safety and fairness, every state in the country bans them from sports, and won’t play schools who do otherwise. Ditto most private schools. After getting bad press, Rhee said that the rule would be removed, so the Catholic league continued to schedule games with DCIAA. But DCPS quietly continued the policy. Henderson also said the ban would be reinstated. But in August, Jackson reversed that decision for 2011.

Mathieu, for his part, thinks the decline can be reversed—and says the ex-athlete currently in the mayor’s office could help. “I know Mayor Gray pretty well,” he says. “I know he loves and cares for the sports programs in the city. If somebody in authority would show him how to streamline the system to deal with the issues that are crippling it, I believe in short order he’d change what’s necessary. If you’ve got that support, it can be done.”

Not that Mathieu is trying to be part of that change. I remind Mathieu that his old job as DCPS athletic director remains open, and ask him if he sent in his résumé.

“No, that didn’t happen,” Mathieu says.

Leftwich, the Carroll AD, still seems stung by Coolidge’s stand-up routine. He’s a D.C. native and, as a star on the Carroll basketball teams that put up a 55-game winning streak from 1958 to 1960, a local prep sports legend. The cancellation of a football game, he knows, leads to trickle-down miseries. “It’s a whole production,” he says. “And losing that is a disappointment to everybody, from the kids that have been practicing all along on down.”

High school seniors get one less chance to show off for college scouts. There are bands and cheerleaders that don’t get to perform, and alumni gatherings and fundraising and spirit-building efforts that get flushed, whenever a football game gets scrapped.

To wedge in an overused cliché: That’s why they play the games.

And that’s why, ultimately, the disarray at DCIAA is outrageous. In a city where the schools have let down students for a generation—and at a time when elected officials are patting themselves on the back for supposedly reversing that—the sports programs are a blatant representation of adult leadership failing students once again. And, as opposed to academics, where standardized test results have become the stuff of front-page stories, it’s a place where the system’s failure has gone largely unnoticed and unpunished.

In fact, reformers ought to care deeply about football, and every other sport. Off-the-field administrative futility is yet another sign of systemic bumbling, the sort of thing that should worry all of those parents that DCPS leaders say they’re wooing back to the public schools. And on-field triumphs—or even just the joys of on-field competition—strengthen the bond between schools and kids, not to mention the parents, families, and community members who city leaders like to tell us are key to the system’s future.

People outside the system—the ones with a choice–hint that they’re through with DCIAA. Johnson, the athletic director at McNamara, says he’s not sure the District’s brass comprehends the damage caused by their new forfeit-friendly ways.

“We didn’t have the football game, and that’s the concern for me,” he says. “Losing a game is a very big deal.”

Johnson says that McNamara’s schedule this season left the weekend of Oct. 7 open. He’s currently looking for another school with the same date open in hopes of making up the game lost to Coolidge over an alleged lack of security guards.

He’s not looking everywhere, however.

“Am I considering a DCIAA school for that game? No sir, I’m not,” he says.