Gym Shorted: Saah says DCPS disses its athletes.
Gym Shorted: Saah says DCPS disses its athletes. Credit: Photo by Darrow Montgomery

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There’s a job opening in the D.C. Public Schools system. The agency is looking for its fourth athletic director in four years.

Eddie Saah is applying for it.

“I sent my résumé in again a month ago,” Saah tells me, laughing. “I dare ’em.”

Saah’s a D.C. native and former athletic director and legendary baseball coach at his alma mater, Wilson Senior High School. This is Saah’s third shot at landing the DCPS job. He tried to get former Chancellor Michelle Rhee to hire him when the city-wide AD position went vacant in 2007, and again when the same job opened up in 2009.

Around the time of the second application, I talked to Saah about the state of D.C. schools. He told me Rhee was going to fail and why.

“You can’t reform schools in this city without reforming athletics,” Saah said.

Saah has spent his life playing, coaching, and administrating sports here. He knows that without sports some portion of the student body would stop going to school altogether. In his estimation, it’s “10 times harder to find a good coach” then a good teacher.

DCPS sports was in a shabby state long before Rhee became chancellor in 2007. But Rhee saw that shabbiness and raised it. Saah judged Rhee as being incapable of doing anything to improve the lousy lot of schoolboy and schoolgirl athletes. So he had trouble taking the rest of her spiel seriously.

He did, though, try to get hired. Saah, who retired from Wilson in 2008, put together a package of ideas that he thought would rejuvenate DCPS sports. Some were mundane but necessary, such as getting DCPS to finally set up a website for athletics the way schools in every other jurisdiction have. Others were bigger, like having RFK Stadium host high school games again. That stadium hasn’t been used regularly for prep sports since 1962, when a race riot broke out in front of 50,033 fans after the City Title game.

He never got to share his brainstorm.

“She had an assistant call me for an interview over the phone,” he says of his 2007 application. “I said, ‘Don’t you want me to come down to talk [to Michelle Rhee] about my ideas?’ She said don’t bother.”

Rhee’s gone, but Saah says her influence on DCPS athletics remains. Seeing the DCPS athletic director’s job open up yet again this summer when Marcus Ellis resigned is proof enough.

Rhee’s first major act as chancellor, remember, was to fire Allen Chin in August 2007. Chin, like Saah, was immersed in D.C. sports. Before serving as DCPS AD for 16 years, Chin spent 18 years as AD at his alma mater, Anacostia Senior High School.

Rhee didn’t hire a permanent AD until 11 months after dumping Chin. In the interim, she unilaterally imposed a “redshirt rule,” which allowed fifth-year high school seniors in the city to remain athletically eligible. Redshirting is banned by the National Federation of State High School Associations because of the competitive advantages it brings to older athletes; all neighboring school districts refuse to play teams that feature fifth-year seniors.

Former Grambling State University athletic director Troy Mathieu became Rhee’s next AD in the summer of 2008. Mathieu resigned in May 2009 after just 10 months on the job. The Washington Post reported that he’d told colleagues that he wasn’t prepared for the administrative dysfunction he experienced in his brief run here.

In August 2009, Rhee filled Mathieu’s empty seat with Ellis, a staffer from the Department of Parks and Recreation. Ellis seemed out of his league, and was often overwhelmed by eligibility issues.

Last football season, for example: Ballou Senior High School beat Dunbar High School, 35-31, to earn its third bid in five seasons to the Turkey Bowl, the annual championship football game. But the thrill of victory vanished when Dunbar coaches complained that Ballou had used an ineligible player. DCPS, like most school systems, has a rule—Rule 2704.18 of the D.C. Municipal Record—requiring that all eligibility protests be filed before the playoffs begin, the better to prevent such 11th-hour challenges and the fiascos they engender.

Unlike most school systems, DCPS doesn’t enforce its rule. So less than 24 hours before the scheduled kickoff of the Turkey Bowl—and with both Ballou and Dunbar still practicing while awaiting a decision—DCPS knocked Ballou out of the title tilt.

The brouhaha broke Ballou Coach Moe Ware’s spirit: “I can’t coach in this city anymore,” Ware told the Washington Post. He resigned this spring.

Signs of the city’s distressed athletic system also show up regularly at Eastern Senior High School, which had to forfeit games at the beginning of the 2010 football season because not enough players came out for the team; the Ramblers had forfeited the entire 2008 season for the same reason. Anacostia also forfeited its first few games last year because it couldn’t dress out the legal minimum number of players.

And the DCIAA girls’ basketball championships in February were also rendered ridiculous because of an eligibility fiasco. (Ellis could not be reached for comment for this column.)Wilson had won a berth to the semifinals with a 50-24 blowout of Ballou; a day later, Wilson was bounced for having a player on the roster who had transferred to Wilson at the beginning of the semester. Ellis deemed her eligible to play at that time. He offered no public explanation for the reversal during the playoff tournament.

These types of Big Game Snafus don’t happen anywhere else around here, but they happen all the time within DCPS.

Saah says he can make necessary reforms, and he’s already lined up a staff and some benefactors to help out.

“I’ve already got five people lined up to work for me [in the DCPS athletics office], and a secretary,” he says. “And I’ve got sponsors, too, people who are desperate to spend money to help out the kids in this city. They’re afraid to give right now because they don’t know who’s going to end up with their money, and they don’t want to throw it away. But they’d give it to me. We’d be organized, man!”

Through a spokesman, Rhee denies accusations that she didn’t take athletics seriously during her run as DCPS chancellor.

“Michelle Rhee understands students with a broad-based curriculum achieve more,” says Hari Sevugan, spokesman for Rhee’s reform advocacy nonprofit StudentsFirst. “That’s why as chancellor Rhee, for the first time in the school district’s history, fought to ensure every school had not only a PE teacher but also art and music teachers and a librarian, and protected those positions in tough budgetary times.”

No deadline for filling the AD job has been announced by DCPS Chancellor Kaya Henderson.

Saah hasn’t yet been invited to interview. Asked if his shot at the job is any better the third time around and with Rhee gone, Saah says, nah.

“They don’t want any part of me,” he says. “They know I’d clean house.”

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