'Cleveland-gate' Charges Renew Recruiting Controversy

Times Staff Writer

Illegal recruitment of athletes is a reoccurring charge among City Section high schools. And an investigation that amounts to lip service is a reoccurring response.

The latest example is called "Cleveland-gate," by Al Morrison, a Cleveland High assistant principal. While venomous allegations and counter-allegations are tossed about recklessly, City administrators yawn and carry on business as usual.

Cleveland and Grant high schools are involved in a heated debate over whether Cleveland illegally recruited basketball players from the Grant attendance area. Yet a four-person panel formed Feb. 9 by the City to investigate the charges has never met.

Grant Principal Robert Collins is impatient with the delay, saying, "I would always hope that when I bring something to the attention of the district, it would be handled expeditiously. I would not submit something to IAC unless I was certain of my evidence."

The panel was to report its findings Monday at a meeting of the City's Interscholastic Athletic Committee. Now it hopes to have a decision by the next IAC meeting April 27.

"We have been somewhat negligent," said Don Thomas, chairman of the panel. "We haven't actually talked to anybody."

Said Morrison: "People believe we are guilty of something and we do have sort of a curse over our heads. I wish the City would get on with the investigation and clear the air."

Grant's most serious charge involves Nate Conner and Shedrick Walker, 10th-graders at Grant who testified before the IAC in February that Cleveland Coach Bob Braswell tried to persuade them last year to attend Cleveland.

Grant also alleges that Cleveland ninth-graders Andre Chevalier and Bobby McRae decided to attend the school after being influenced by Cleveland coaches.

All four students live in the Grant attendance area. Cleveland is in Reseda and Grant is in Van Nuys.

"We have proof," Grant Coach Howard Levine said. "Up and down the line something smells here. I had 14 kids tell me they would start on the Cleveland JV team. The kids know something is going on with Cleveland."

Braswell, however, believes the investigation will exonerate Cleveland.

"What they are saying is completely untrue," said Braswell, whose team has advanced to the City final in each of his two seasons as coach. "We pushed for this investigation because we got sick of people at Grant crying about it.

"My program recruits itself. I don't have to do it. I get two or three calls a night from parents and kids who want to get to Cleveland. I tell them to see the assistant principal."

A coach guilty of recruiting could be fired, according to City administrator Lee Joseph. The students involved could be declared ineligible for athletics and the school involved could be put on probation.

Despite the seriousness of the charges, City Commissioner Hal Harkness is not alarmed that the panel--which consists of Thomas, Bell teacher Sue Kamiyama, Belmont teacher Sal Castro and Joseph--has not begun an investigation.

"Our whole process is not of an investigatory nature," Harkness said. "We don't have the ability to spring into that mode quickly."

There is no investigative body in the district, Harkness added, leaving administrators and teachers to patch something together in their spare time. Also, they are not clear about what they are trying to prove.

CIF bylaw No. 510 defines a recruiting violation as follows: "The use of undue influence to secure or retain a student. . . ." The purpose of the rule, "is to assure that the student is making a free and unpressured choice." All 10 sections of the CIF--including the City--abide by the same bylaws.

"Undue influence is very hard to define," Thomas said. "Maybe it would be people who are close to youngsters in school and community organizations promoting a given location and not promoting the good things of another location."

Thomas Byrnes, Commissioner of the CIF, believes the rule is clear.

"It ensures that students and their parents make an unpressured choice of a school based on what's best for the student scholastically," Byrnes said. "Athletics should have no bearing on such choices. If athletics are used as an inducement to retain a student or get the student to transfer somewhere else, that's a violation."

Conner and Walker, who were academically ineligible to play basketball this season, testified that Cleveland coaches solicited their phone numbers while they were playing in a youth league that feeds primarily into Grant. They also said the coaches told them how they could enroll at Cleveland, according to Joseph.

"The Grant coach found a couple of kids who said Braswell approached them and offered inducements to get them to Cleveland," Joseph said. "No shoes, cash or equipment. Just information about how to get into the school."

Fred Baltau, president of the East Valley Trojans youth basketball program, tipped off Grant about Braswell's alleged recruiting.

"Last year at this time Braswell came and watched the 13-year-olds," Baltau said. "Three or four times I saw him. He literally recruited from the 14- and 13-year-old teams. Nate Conner said he talked to him on the phone. Fifteen kids were eagerly talking about attending Cleveland. The youngsters felt flattered that a high school coach came out and wanted them to attend his school."

Braswell admits attending games but denies he spoke to players.

"I was at two games," he said. "While at those games, there were four to six other high school coaches there. I don't even know who Walker is. He's saying I called him. The only way I know Nate Conner--I never talked to him on the phone or in person--was when I came down and watched him play."

Baltau's motivation for making accusations is to retain ninth-grade players in his youth program rather than lose them to a four-year high school, Braswell believes.

"People like Fred Baltau feel threatened because their best ninth-grade youth players have an opportunity to go to a good high school program," he said.

Grant also charges that Tom Smith, an assistant football coach at Cleveland, influenced eighth-grade athletes to attend Cleveland while he was teaching two years ago at Madison Junior High, which feeds into Grant. Chevalier, Conner and Walker attended Madison. McRae also lives in the Grant attendance area and attended Sepulveda Junior High.

Smith denies the allegations, saying: "I didn't try to recruit any kid. Levine is just blowing smoke. He thinks he lost out on some kids."

In an odd twist, Levine might be guilty of undue influence for trying to persuade students living in the Grant attendance area not to attend Cleveland. According to Byrnes, the CIF commissioner, a coach who uses undue influence to retain a player in his own attendance area is guilty of recruiting.

Levine, in fact, unwittingly implicated himself.

"I told Bobby McRae--who is a good student--that Grant is the place for him because it has the best honors program in the City," he said. "I told him this and one day later he was gone to Cleveland."

Cleveland, ranked No. 1 in the Valley by The Times last season with a 20-4 record, appeals to athletes entering the ninth grade partly because it is one of only eight four-year high schools in the L.A. Unified School District. Another reason is the program's winning reputation.

Chevalier and McRae, for example, started on Cleveland's junior varsity basketball team this season and were promoted to varsity for the playoffs. Had they remained in junior high, they would have been playing in a youth league rather than vying for the City championship at the Sports Arena.

"Anyone can see why they want to go to Cleveland," Harkness said.

Chevalier was seated next to Braswell in the stands at the Sports Arena last month, intently absorbing the coach's every word. Cleveland had registered a major victory moments before, defeating nine-time City champion Crenshaw in a semifinal playoff game.

Although Chevalier did not play against Crenshaw, he cheered every Cleveland basket and slapped high-fives with the likes of senior stars Andre Anderson and Adrian King. McRae actually played during the last minute against Crenshaw.

"It's a tremendous and mind-boggling experience for Andre and Bobby to play in the Sports Arena," Braswell said. "They tell me, 'Coach, I am so glad I am at Cleveland.' And my assistant coach told me, 'Bobby and Andre were swarming around you like puppies to their mother.' "

Or like metal to a magnet.

Cleveland, in fact, has a magnet large enough to attract 560 students. Nearly half of Cleveland's 2,800 students live outside the school's attendance boundaries. In addition to the magnet students, about 800 qualify for Permit With Transfers, an integration program available to most City high schools.

Chevalier and McRae are two of those who qualified for Cleveland's magnet program. No minimum grade-point average is necessary to qualify for the magnet program, which exists throughout the L.A. Unified School District to provide voluntary integration and an intensified program in specialized areas. Cleveland's specialty area is humanities. Other City high schools offer magnet programs in zoology, computer science and marine science, among other disciplines.

Grant charges, however, that Cleveland has the equivalent of a magnet program in basketball. Surprisingly, it is an accusation that neither Harkness nor Braswell disputes.

"If you had a child who was an exceptionally gifted musician and Cleveland had a great band, wouldn't you want him to go there?" Harkness said. "Who is to question the motivation of a kid and his parents? The fact is that the magnet program may be used for something other than for what it's intended. That in itself is not a violation."

Said Braswell: "If the district offers me a program that allows me a choice, and at the same time, a good experience in basketball, the choice wouldn't be difficult for me."

Only five of the 30 students in the Cleveland basketball program are enrolled in the magnet program--senior DeWitte Stewart, juniors Damon Greer and Richard Branham, and Chevalier and McRae. "That doesn't mean there won't be more in the future," Braswell said.

And it doesn't mean there haven't been more in the past. Part of Braswell's problem is that he inherited a program with a reputation for recruiting.

"Fingers have pointed at Cleveland for years," Taft Coach Jim Woodard said. "Trevor Wilson and Andre Washington were supposedly recruited from the Van Nuys area. Van Nuys made a big stink, brought witnesses and everything. But nothing came of it."

Last September, Parker Lefton, a teacher at McRay Junior High in Sepulveda, wrote a letter to Kennedy officials, alleging that Cleveland recruited Terrell Woodard, a ninth-grader who lives in the Kennedy attendance area, to play football. Woodard, no relation to the Taft coach, is a 10th-grader at Cleveland. Kennedy never pursued Lefton's allegations.

Braswell claims he is trying to end Cleveland's reputation as a basketball bandit.

"There was that reputation before I was coach," Braswell said. "I'm trying to change that."

Even people who accuse Braswell of recruiting acknowledge he is a fine coach.

"I've never accused Bob of exploiting the kids," said Baltau, the youth league president. "I've looked at the product--not just his winning basketball teams but the moral and educational maturity of the boys. It's there. I've formed the judgment that going to Cleveland has been a good move for Andre and Bobby.

"My only complaint is that they are exploiting the system. I'm biased toward seeing kids go to their neighborhood schools."

City officials, however, maintain that the magnet program promotes integration and should not be curtailed because of a few complaints. Consequently, there is no great hurry to find fault in the program.

But because the investigation has been nonexistent, facts are scarce and rumors are rampant.

"Everyone is dragging their feet and getting dragged along by the system," Levine said.

The only point everyone agrees on is that the matter is all too typical of the vast, 49-school City Section, where accusations of recruiting are commonplace but proof is rare.

"There have been accusations for years of kids transferring from one school to another," Harkness said. "It's your word against mine."

Recruiting rules in the City are like the 55 m.p.h. speed limit--they exist but few abide by them.

Joseph, who has been a City administrator for more than 20 years, can recall only one instance of a penalty being handed down for a recruiting violation. Lionel Marquetti, a basketball player at Washington High, was recruited by Locke High Coach Cliff Burems in 1977. Marquetti was declared ineligible and he promptly transferred to Verbum Dei, a Southern Section school in Los Angeles.

"There have been plenty of accusations against Cleveland, Crenshaw, Fairfax--the schools that consistently turn out great teams," Woodard said. "Other coaches become resigned to it. The message is clear--nothing will ever be done about recruiting."

Levine, a first-year coach who directed Grant to an 11-11 record, won't tolerate what Woodard calls inevitable.

"Maybe in five years I'll be the same way," Levine said. "But I'm a young coach and I'm going to fight it."

Harkness believes that because Smith has been transferred from Madison Junior High to Cleveland, the source of the recruiting has been eliminated.

"I hope that the removal of him from the junior high will stop the accusations," Harkness said.

Although Grant has enough evidence to warrant an investigation, Joseph does not think Cleveland will be punished.

"There are lots of allegations but they aren't solid gold," Joseph said. "Maybe they are painted gold on the outside but there is just iron ore on the inside."

Collins, the Grant principal, will appeal the case to the L.A. Board of Education if the IAC does not find Cleveland guilty. The district superintendent would review an appeal and present it to the board if he believed it had merit, Collins said.

Byrnes said the CIF also could hear an appeal. "The state is the last word," he said.

If all appeals are exhausted and nothing is proved, the effort still will have been worthwhile to Levine. Bringing the allegations to the attention of the City, he feels, has had the effect of a dog baring its fangs to stake out its territory.

"I'm not looking to get Braswell fired," Levine said. "I'm looking to get fairness back into the system. The magnet program is for academics and if this happens again, I'll be right there, asking questions."

Levine offered a solution to remove the motivation for athletes to leave the attendance area of a three-year high school for a four-year school.

"Stop athletes from playing ball as ninth-graders," he said. "The first year, make sure they are there for academic reasons. Then a kid and his family have to sit and think it through. It's no longer a quick fix."

Harkness, in his first year as commissioner, is already tiring of the tug of war.

"The youngsters are almost chattel in this," he said. "Whatever the outcome, one thing is certain. We aren't being very good role models."

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