When MBA fired football coach Daniel McGugin in April 2011, it seemed as if there was more to the story.
The official line was that a Tennessee Secondary School Athletic Association investigation — into illegal payments made to a player's family — led to the tony private school's request for its coach to step down. McGugin insisted there was no violation and claimed he refused to resign.
Nevertheless, McGugin — scion of a Nashville coaching family reaching back to Vanderbilt legend Dan — was out.
Now a City Paper investigation published this week indicates that back-channel financial support for the families of Big Red athletes may be as common as state championships at the 146-year-old school.
In at least seven cases, as The City Paper's Ken Whitehouse reported, MBA athletes allegedly received payments outside the strictures of the TSSAA's financial aid guidelines, a maze of requirements requiring tax returns, financial statements and independent auditors.
Cynics will note there is nothing shocking in the City Paper report. It's been long suspected that promising athletes receive under-the-table payments and tuition help from MBA and other prep schools in exchange for their talents on the field and court.
Such whispers and open accusations of recruiting led to the TSSAA splitting its member schools into financial aid (Division 2) and non-financial aid (Division 1) divisions in 1996.
Even after the split, though, athletes' families were still required to pay their own way unless they met the standard need-based financial aid requirements.
The split, though, didn't quiet the whispers.
Spend two hours at any game pitting a Division 1 school against a Division 2 school. The finger-pointing about pay-for-play is part of the atmosphere. When two Division 2 schools square off, it doesn't get any better — the pot calls the kettle black, while the kettle says no, the pot is darker than we are.
Among public-school boosters, private schools paying players is an article of the faith. At private schools, plausible deniability is the doctrine.
But the blame for all of it rests with the TSSAA. Despite a Supreme Court decision saying the organization is a "state actor," its enforcement is as ineffectual as a toothless Doberman. It casts itself as a scary guard dog, but close examination reveals it as little more than an annoyance.
Using an ineligible player rarely results in more than a $50 (yes, $50) fine and maybe a loss of a win or two. Sanctions of any length are rare if they exist at all. Violations are almost wholly self-reported by the schools. That's no way to run a police department.
And what of the student athletes? It's hard to begrudge a family for seeking the education and cachet that comes with an MBA diploma — or an Ensworth diploma, or a diploma from any of the state's other private schools. If Johnny can throw a perfect spiral, or Madison can nail a jump shot with two defenders in her face, and it means a top-notch high school education, Johnny and Madison's mom and dad should seize that opportunity.
But to pretend it doesn't happen — or in the TSSAA's case, to make it against the rules — is a farce worthy of John Cleese. It simply makes the payments — which everyone is aware of or at least suspects — sub rosa. And the whispers plague athletes and teams until the heat forces a school to find a scapegoat, like McGugin.
The TSSAA is ill-equipped to enforce its Byzantine financial-aid rules. So it should stop trying. Instead, it should allow promising student athletes grants-in-aid based on their ability. It has already created a mechanism that largely keeps the public and private schools apart. Why not make the split meaningful?
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