Probe: Assistant coach improperly recruited Samoan players
FRESNO, California -- An assistant football coach at a U.S. high school led his team to a string of victories by improperly recruiting more than a dozen players from American Samoa and offering them housing, according to an investigation by local sports authorities.
The six-month probe alleges a Samoa-based relative of the coach began meeting with the students' parents as early as 2004 and persuaded them to send their sons from the remote South Pacific island to arid Stockton, an arid city 50 miles south of Sacramento. Once there, the coach is accused of housing the students at his home, with his brother or with other coaches.
Fourteen students and their families flew to California on tickets purchased by the coach's mother and were put up in motels for a week paid for by Franklin High School personnel, authorities said. The coaches helped the parents get fake utility bills to establish their sons' residency, and the Yellowjackets gained a new set of recruits to advance their standing within the league, officials said.
"Who knows where they would have been if they hadn't had those kids," said Pete Saco, a regional commissioner of the California Interscholastic Federation, the governing body for high school sports in the state. "Our goal is that everybody has to play by the rules. That's the essence of what high sports is all about."
While not criminal, athletic recruiting at the high school level is not permitted by high school sports governing bodies in United States, along with exercising "undue influence" to coerce young students to switch schools, sports authorities said.
Still, administrators in the Stockton Unified School District questioned the report's focus on students from one ethnic group.
Dozens of students of Samoan descent play on other teams in the Central Valley area, and all three Samoan students enrolled at Franklin High School are in compliance with the rules, said superintendent Jack McLaughlin.
"We viewed this in the beginning as kind of an attack on a culture," McLaughlin said. "We did not violate anything."
Messages left for the high school's assistant principal and athletics departments were not immediately returned Thursday.
In just a few years, youth in American Samoa, a U.S. territory of roughly 70,000 people, have become less fanatic about rugby -- which was introduced by the colonial British -- and more interested in playing American football.
Samoans compete in the National Football League and on college football teams throughout the nation, said Eni Faleomavaega, the U.S. Congressional delegate from the island.
As college recruiters have started taking more interest in the island in recent years, Samoan educators have worked to support their students' efforts to seek sports scholarships on the mainland, said Faleomavaega.
"I tell the kids, 'Don't play rugby anymore. Play football, you get paid more money,'" Faleomavaega said. "That said, this does raise some very serious questions not only legally, but I don't think it's right that students should be brought out at that level of their education."
It was a high school football coach in Samoa, Pooch Taase, who called Saco in March to ask whether recruiting was legal at the high school level, Saco said.
Local sports authorities started probing allegations that parents of students at five high schools in the capital city, Pago Pago, were being paid to fly to California and that their children were being housed with American coaches, according to the investigation.
In June, a consultant and a Sacramento lawyer flew to Samoa, where they interviewed student recruits, parents and administrators.
Saco would not say how much the investigation cost, but a federation spokeswoman said it was the most extensive inquiry undertaken in California in recent years.
If Saco finds the school violated the rules, Franklin High may have to forfeit games when the accused students were on the team or could be suspended from playing in section championships, the federation said.
Stockton Unified School District officials must respond by Oct. 5.
Copyright 2007 by The Associated Press
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