It’s Not So Easy Sorting Through the Sparks Case

Whenever there is an athletic transfer case like the one involving cousins Derek and Leland Sparks, football players who switched from Van Nuys Montclair Prep to Santa Ana Mater Dei last week, there are seldom any real winners. Usually, there are just victims.

It is hard to imagine that Derek, 17, and Leland, 18, were the masterminds behind the controversial transfers which led to a Southern Section investigation of Montclair Prep’s athletic program and an inquiry into Mater Dei’s athletic admission policy.

It is also difficult, however, to put all the blame on the Sparks’ uncles, Jerome and Eric Sparks, who orchestrated the move. They were only looking for the best interests of their nephews.

In a meeting with the Southern Section Executive Committee last week, the uncles accused the Montclair Prep coaching staff and Principal Vernon Simpson of grade tampering, recruiting inducements and supplying false information on eligibility guidelines.


Jerome Sparks and the issue of guardianship have been a big part of the problem. Derek Sparks left his mother, June Sparks, in the summer of 1988 in Wharton, Tex., and transferred to Wilmington Banning to be under the guardianship of Jerome Sparks, June’s brother.

Derek then transferred from Banning to Montclair Prep in March, 1989, to live with Eric Sparks, another uncle, and Leland Sparks, who had just moved from Wharton, in an on-campus apartment.

Derek later moved in with Montclair Prep teammate John Goldbaum and his family last spring, after the Sparks’ on-campus apartment was torn down. Derek and Leland now live with June, who left Wharton to live in Santa Ana earlier this month.

Debatable transfer cases such as this one are not new to the Southland prep athletic scene. Every year there are athletes who transfer, solely to improve their chances of exposure in hopes of landing college scholarships. Two years ago, quarterback Perry Klein transferred from Palisades to Carson to play football, and then transferred after the football season to Santa Monica to play volleyball.


Most transfers, like the ones made by Klein and the Sparks cousins, are made within the rules, however.

The Southern Section and the City Section do their best in checking eligibility of any student participating in sports, especially transfer students. But they aren’t police and can’t monitor every case.

So Derek and Leland Sparks are enrolled at Mater Dei, and the Monarchs were cleared of any wrongdoing by the Southern Section Monday.

But questions remain. For example, how did Derek and Leland gain admission to Mater Dei?

Derek Sparks was granted eligibility under Southern Section and Mater Dei rules despite being on academic probation for having a grade-point average under 2.0 last spring. He has one semester to improve his grades, which will end after football season is completed. Leland Sparks is not eligible because his average was below 2.0 for the past two semesters and he didn’t take enough core classes.

Many of the schools in the Angelus League, a Catholic league of which Mater Dei is a member, have complained about the Sparks’ transfers.

“At this point, Loyola will go ahead with its plans of filing a complaint with the CAA (Catholic Athletic Assn.) to see if there is preferable admission treatment of athletes at Mater Dei,” said Jon Dawson, Loyola’s athletic director.

Tom Vitello, athletic director at Anaheim Servite, said that the Friars turned down a similar transfer case last summer.


“We had a prospective student who was a prominent athlete, but we didn’t accept him because we didn’t think that he’d make it through his last two years academically,” Vitello said.

“These types of transfers give all the Catholic schools a black eye,” he said. “It gives us a bad perception to the public schools and makes it very difficult to schedule opponents because they think all of us recruit and take in transfers.”

These complaints are not surprising, but would they have been as loud if Derek Sparks had not been considered one of the best running backs in the area?

Probably not. Questions about transfers become major issues only when the athletes are impact players. Derek Sparks fits that description.

The real concern here should not be whether Derek Sparks will lead Mater Dei into the playoffs, but whether he is getting any education through all the confusion.

Co-Coach Paul Knox of Dorsey still is not pleased with the City Section’s 4-A Division football playoff structure, despite his team’s 36-0 rout of Manual Arts in the season opener Friday.

Under the current setup, all 12 4-A teams will qualify for the playoffs. In 3-A, 16 of the 37 teams will make the playoffs, with the Western League being the new addition this season.

“I’m known around the city as a person who does not like having two divisions,” said Knox, whose team is the defending 4-A champion. “The top 3-A teams are as good as the 4-A teams. They would not be at a disadvantage to go against 4-A competition. The way it is now, we won’t play against a team in the playoffs who we haven’t faced during the regular season.”


Lee Joseph, a city athletic administrator, disagrees.

“The best thing for right now is to have two divisions,” Joseph said. “Just because a (3-A) school has a winning season does not mean that the program is ready for the big guys. What we are looking for are steady programs. I don’t think that playing a team twice in a season should be a problem in football.”

Kurt Herbst has been named to replace Ollie Butler as basketball coach at Victor Valley.

Herbst, who was the junior varsity coach at West Covina last season, takes over for Butler, who was forced to resign in the aftermath of a postgame brawl last Dec. 6 against La Verne Damien.


Southern Section

No. School, LeagueRecord

1. Fontana, Citrus Belt 2-0-0

2. CC Canyon, Golden 3-0-0

3. El Toro, South Coast 2-0-0

4. Bishop Amat, Angelus 1-1-0

5. Loyola, Angelus 2-0-0

6. Muir, Pacific 1-1-0

7. Hawthorne, Bay 2-0-0

8. Paramount, San Gabriel Valley 2-0-0

9. Capistrano Valley, So. Coast 2-0-0

10. Lompoc, Northern 2-0-0

11. Quartz Hill, Golden 2-0-0

12. Crespi, Mission 3-0-0

13. Westlake, Marmonte 2-0-0

14. Thousand Oaks, Marmonte 2-0-0

15. Edison, Sunset 2-1-0


No. School, League, Record

1. Carson, Pacific 1-0-0

2. Granada Hills, W. Valley 1-0-0

3. Dorsey, Pacific 1-0-0

4. Taft, West Valley 0-0-0

5. Westchester, Metro 1-0-0

6. Kennedy, North Valley 1-0-0

7. Banning, Pacific 0-1-0

8. Locke, Central 1-0-0

9. San Fernando, North Valley 1-0-0

10. San Pedro, Southern 1-0-0