Seeing Redshirt: Rhee?s decision has local Catholic schools threatening to snub DCIAA teams. Credit: Darrow Montgomery/File

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Out of sight. Out of mind. But still on the books.

That’s apparently the status of the so-called “redshirt rule” that allows fifth-year seniors at D.C.’s public high schools to remain athletically eligible.

And, unless that rule is done away with, this week’s city title basketball game at Verizon Center—the 41st game in an annual series between the champions of the D.C. Interscholastic Athletic Association (DCIAA), the District’s public-schools league, and the Washington Catholic Athletic Conference (WCAC)—will be the last.

“We won’t play schools that allow a fifth year,” says Dan McMahon, principal of DeMatha, winner of a record 19 city title games. “That would change everything. You’d get kids who’d come in for a redshirt year. That would create a situation that, well—holy smokes. But I think that’s a dead issue around here. At least, I hope like heck it is.”

Sorry, Principal McMahon. The redshirt rule lives on.

“That rule is still in place,” says Mafara Hobson, spokesperson for the D.C. Public Schools.

Hobson’s boss, schools Chancellor Michelle Rhee, quietly enacted the controversial edict on Oct. 4, 2007. The Washington Post reported in November that Rhee got personally involved in the case of Josh Stover, a football-playing student who was held back for a year because of administrative snafus while he was transferring from Ballou to H.D. Woodson. Hobson confirms the accuracy of that Post report.

At the time, athletes in the DCIAA, like their peers in essentially all public and private school leagues in the United States, were only eligible for eight consecutive semesters beginning with their first day of high school. But Rhee gave Stover permission to play football in his fifth year of high school.

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And she didn’t stop there. Though Stover’s situation was hardly commonplace—he attended three different high schools—Rhee used his case to install a blanket change to the system. Hobson says Rhee worked with lawyers to draw up a change to city regulations that allowed all DCPS students who were held back academically for a year of high school to play their fourth season of any sport during their fifth year of high school, assuming they regained academic eligibility.

In other words, D.C. student-athletes can now be redshirted. All they have to do is fail a grade.

Allen Chin, DCPS’ longtime director of athletics, was taken out of the decision-making loop shortly after Rhee took office, and he was not involved in Stover’s reinstatement or the eligibility rule change.

Rhee, Hobson says, had no background in high school athletics before becoming chancellor. Rhee’s first foray into sports shocked local prep-sports officials—redshirting is a college practice, not common in high schools. After the Post’s story on Stover, coaches and administrators from WCAC schools, including powerful DeMatha, declared that D.C.’s eligibility change threatened all future competitions between the public and private schools.

The rule is ripe for abuse, since the extra year gives redshirted athletes a huge advantage not only on the field of play but in the competition for college scholarships. That’s why the trend in prep athletics over the last several years has been toward tightening eligibility rules. By now, only a few private schools allow redshirt athletes to play their senior seasons, and those that do have been booted out of mainstream prep athletic circles.

Virginia and Maryland public schools, like the WCAC, won’t play schools that allow redshirting. Many ranking services, including Rivals.com, refuse to include schools that grant eligibility to fifth-year seniors. Even Stu Vetter, the Montrose Christian coach who built nationally ranked programs at several area private schools using redshirt high school athletes, has stopped filling his roster with 13th-graders.

After local administrators let their displeasure with the rule be known, Rhee told the Post that she intended to amend the rule so players must play in four consecutive seasons and meet age restrictions—which would still allow redshirting, but only for those who sit out their freshman years. According to WCAC officials, Rhee also contacted the league and said she didn’t realize the ramifications of her action and led officials to believe the rule that put Stover back on the field would go away.

“It was my understanding that that issue has been dropped,” says WCAC Commissioner Jim Leary.

Hardly. Hobson says Rhee is now convinced that her rule works. The proof comes from Stover, who went on to star at linebacker for Woodson on the way to helping the Warriors to a berth in the Turkey Bowl, the public-schools championship game. He recently made a verbal commitment to play college ball at Kent State. That, Hobson says, “is an example of what [Rhee]’s trying to do: to allow students to be able to qualify for scholarships.”

Given the uproar over the rule that erupted last year, the strong support for the controversial measure stuns me. So I ask Hobson if she is indeed sure that the rule is still on the books and that Rhee plans to allow fifth-year high school students to remain athletically eligible.

“Am I sure? I’m sure,” she says.

Hobson then provides an example of how Rhee’s eligibility rule will work: A student who plays football in 9th and 10th grades runs into academic trouble during the spring semester of his sophomore year and must repeat a year, during which he is not eligible to play. But, in the repeat year, his grades improve. He can then play in 11th and 12th grades.

“You can’t play five years,” Hobson says. “You get four athletic years out of five school years.”

Yup. That’s redshirting. And so much for “consecutive.”

Hobson says the school system has not started keeping records on how many fifth-year athletes are playing in the DCIAA. But for the WCAC, even one more could be too many and could stop momentum that has been building between the public and private schools to intensify their athletic relationship.

The key step in that process would be restoring the city title football game, which has been defunct since the 1962 game. Blood rivals St. John’s and Eastern brought 50,033 spectators to D.C. Stadium (later RFK), the largest crowd ever to see any sporting event in the District to that point, but that game ended with a brawl between St. John’s mostly white following and Eastern’s mostly black fans. School officials quickly canceled future football title games in the name of safety.

Recently, there’s been talk about rekindling the football championship game, but a disagreement over when such a game would be held—Leary says WCAC won’t agree to any date after Thanksgiving weekend, while the DCIAA, given the success of its intraleague Turkey Bowl, wants to continue holding its own league championship on Thanksgiving Day—has prevented any deals thus far.

If no city title football game can be worked out, the WCAC has proposed a multigame, season-starting event that would borrow the format of college basketball’s ACC/Big Ten Challenge. The WCAC is also interested in installing a baseball competition, either a tournament or a championship matchup, with the public schools.

But if the DCIAA does indeed become a redshirt friendly league—and if the Rhee Rule stays in place, it surely will—no new matchups will come about. And the city title basketball game will go away.

“We won’t allow it,” says DeMatha’s McMahon.