In Seattle, the number of high school football and basketball players who classify themselves as homeless has risen from 49 to 129 in the last three years. At first blush that indicates a sudden surge in teen homelessness in Seattle, except that isn’t the case. Over that span, football and basketball players have registered as homeless at twice the rate of the general student population, according to this examination of the issue in the Seattle Times.
Players are classifying as homeless to get around recruiting and academic eligibility rules so they can play for whichever coach at whichever school they choose. Most are local kids, but some have come from as far away as Louisiana and Texas. Some some have gone on to live productive lives, and some have returned to destitution at the immediate conclusion of their high school playing careers, according to the anecdotes provided.
Today, many in Seattle are in a debate about how much of a problem this is and what ought to be done about it. The crux of the matter was expressed by a man named Marcus Harden, who runs an alternative school in Seattle, and recently took in some athletes who were left with nowhere else to go when last football season ended.
“Do I believe people have good intentions when they start out with this stuff? Yes, probably,” Harden said. “I don’t think anyone’s planning for kids to end up homeless. But these kids needed guidance more than they needed football.”
“What sickens me is the adults playing victim, saying they just did it to give these kids an opportunity. No, they gave themselves an opportunity.”
The case Harden referred to concerned a Texas boy who was recruited to Seattle as a homeless transfer, ran for 574 yards and five touchdowns in 10 games, and was then put on a plane back to Texas for Thanksgiving and scratched off the enrollment list. This is a situation that should never be allowed to happen. That’s a boy who deserves the opportunity to be on a football team, should probably be cut some slack on his academic eligibility, and, most importantly, needs somewhere to sleep at night. It’s a situation that can and should be resolved locally, without introducing any extra chaos into the already chaotic life of a homeless teenager.
Seattle Public Schools seem to be taking this all pretty seriously, which is a good thing, because if something like that happens again, it will be because the school board knew its own school system was exploiting homeless kids, and couldn’t manage to put a stop to it.
But before we warm up the tar and pluck the feathers, let’s note that a coach taking on a new player can be a mutually beneficial opportunity, and usually is. Harden would know, having played small-college football on scholarship in Kansas. In Washington, children who are homeless or are in such a situation they can plausibly claim to be homeless are nonetheless required by the state to be schooled somewhere, by someone, until they are 18, and the fact of their having a particular talent in sports doesn’t exempt them from that. Most of those kids don’t go to school anyway, but we’re talking about the ones that do. So whether they’re playing football for the Red Faced Oaf in their neighborhood or for the Suave Young Visor across town, as long as they’re still playing, there will necessarily be some coach out there who is responsible for them to some degree.
To what degree is an important question, because the Seattle Times seemingly wants to hold high school coaches to account for decisions made by their players years after the fact.
Sixteen years ago, the federal government passed a law aimed at creating a bit of stability in the lives of homeless students. Kids whose families lacked a consistent address, migrating between shelters and friends’ couches, could sidestep standard residency requirements and remain at one school despite their transient lives.
But for a growing number of Seattle athletes, the intent behind the McKinney-Vento Homeless Assistance Act has been turned upside down.
For these ballplayers, homeless-student status allows them to move from school to school, following celebrity coaches and dreams of sports stardom while excused from rules that bind other athletes — such as maintaining a solid grade-point average.
Framed as an important opportunity for kids in need, the law also has been used to exploit their hopes. Because when sports end, many of these students find themselves adrift.
Here, the Times makes a bold and surprising assertion: That recruiting is exploitative, in and of itself. Not that recruiting is against the rules (though it is), but that it is unfair to a homeless teenager to pitch him on an opportunity unless that opportunity comes with a guarantee of stability. Following this moral code would seem to restrict people from helping the needy in myriad ways, but the Times nonetheless forges ahead with anecdotes re-enforcing the notion.
DeeShawn Tucker, a basketball star in Seattle three years ago, received the [homeless] designation after his father, with whom he’d lived in Federal Way, was murdered outside a motel.
Tucker’s mother lived in Seattle, but the two did not get along. So, Tucker said, he moved into another home near Garfield High and spent his senior year playing alongside four other starters — also listed as homeless — all of whom had transferred onto the team. They went on to win a state championship.
Now 21, Tucker recounted this history from the King County Jail, where he is awaiting trial on two felony burglary charges, and still envisions a professional sports career.
There are a great many factors that created the circumstances in which DeeShawn Tucker now finds himself, but it’s difficult to see how playing on a state championship basketball team was among them. What, exactly, his high school basketball coach should have done to prevent this is territory left unexplored.
That is more or less the point made by a handful of the city’s black coaches, who rightly say it’s impossible for them to help homeless kids without occasionally stepping on a rule, and suspect this whole thing is a targeted effort at impugning their reputations. The situation has caught the attention of the NAACP.
The Seattle King County chapter of the NAACP agrees. In May, President Gerald Hankerson sent a letter to Seattle Superintendent Larry Nyland and every member of the School Board, calling the investigation “an internal witch hunt” that is part of a pattern of “disparate treatment of African-American employees.”
“How do you distinguish the difference between helping a kid and a recruiting violation?” Hankerson said in an interview. “These brothers are walking a tightrope. I don’t even think a coach can give a kid bus fare without being accused of a violation.”
There are rules for athletic competition, and there are school districts with carefully drawn boundaries, and sprawling bureaucracies that exist mainly to make sure those inside them are never blamed for anything. Likewise, there are ambitious coaches who will exploit any loophole to gain an advantage. We know these things because we are alive, literate, and interact with the world around us.
But let’s take a step back. A big one. And let’s ask ourselves: What — and let’s be precise about this — is the problem here?
- Surely, not even the Seattle Times wants to argue it is a problem that homeless teenagers have a sports team to play on. A seat in a classroom and a spot in the starting lineup is a pretty good deal, as teen exploitation goes.
- Is it of grave importance that a vulnerable and desperate teenager attend a school bureaucratically assigned to him based on nothing but geographical boundaries? If so, to whom? And why?
- What is a coach’s responsibility to his players, after they are no longer his players? Does that responsibility change based on how talented the player was?
In high school sports at public schools, recruiting upsets the competitive balance and offends the spirit of interscholastic competition. It should be opposed on those grounds (which it is). For as long as there have been recruiting rules in high school sports, there have been coaches and players conspiring to get around them. The kid claims grandma’s house as his home address, and he gets to play on the really good team with all his friends. The coach gets some hardware and a raise. Everybody wins (except the teams they smashed). It becomes troubling when the relationship isn’t symbiotic. The situation in Seattle seems foggy enough to deserve the interrogation it has gotten from the local press and other institutions.
But it’s difficult to find much blame for coaches in this.
The Times piece provides examples of kids who got recruited, played ball for a while, and didn’t do well afterward. But, sadly, things were going badly beforehand too. Everybody loves the narrative of The Blind Side and wants to imagine that’s happening all the time. But how many of us would have actually done what Leigh Anne Tuohy did? We should expect coaches to follow the rules, and we should expect everyone not to exploit the weak for personal gain. But these are not situations that can be painted in broad strokes. A homeless teenager is a child who has been failed by a long series of people and institutions before getting to the football coach.
There are about 700,000 people living in Seattle proper, 6,371 of which work for the Seattle school district. That district has a budget this year of $789.7 million. They serve 54,976 students, 28,271 of them boys, and 3,030 students experiencing homelessness. It has the resources to figure out what’s going on in 129 of its most precarious situations, and should be expected to. Clearly, there are some stopgaps missing from this apparatus. This is a “nip it in the bud” situation for Seattle schools. There may wind up needing to be a re-thinking of procedure involved when it comes to homeless ballplayers or homeless students in general. There may need to be some standard imposed upon local schools for retention of homeless students, with a probationary penalty. It might not need to be strict, but it might need to be just enough to make sure everybody’s paying attention to what’s happening to these kids.
There is, the Times reports, a body tasked with doing something very much like that. It just … doesn’t always do it.
Rules governing the WIAA say students listed as homeless are supposed to be reviewed by a district-level committee to ensure the legitimacy of that status. But no such hearing was requested in Sanders’ case, said Sam Jackson Jr., who oversees player eligibility in the Sea-King district.
So why not start by just having someone not from the football team or the school talk to each kid and figure out what his situation is?
If the guy who coaches the basketball team is teaching skills, discipline, responsibility and winning, then he is carrying his weight in the ecosystem of his players’ lives. I think it’s likely most of the folks on both sides of this issue have their hearts in the right place, and I think it’s likely there are some Seattle coaches whose relationship with these players rises to the level of exploitation. But I think the NAACP is right to question leaps to that conclusion, and coaches are justified in leaping to their own defense.
These are, after all, desperate kids from unstable environments we’re talking about. They’re getting discipline and supervision from someone who is willing to take on some risk, in one of the few environments where they actually have some leverage. We should think long and hard about whether or not we want to discourage that.