The Bellevue Wolverines football program faces enormous challenges as it works to vindicate itself after a scathing report about the program’s questionable methods. Supporters of the team have vowed to fight the findings.
The Bellevue school board said it will discuss the embattled Bellevue High School football team Tuesday evening, a week after the release of a scathing report about the Wolverines program.
Supporters of the team have vowed to fight the report’s findings in any way possible.
“We expect to be fully vindicated at the conclusion of this process,” said booster club President John Connors.
While there are potential avenues for the Wolverines to claw back the findings, the process set to unfold over the coming weeks poses enormous challenges for the team. To vindicate themselves, they may need help from three groups that have felt the wrath of the boosters and the team recently:
Bellevue football investigation:
• Bellevue School District leaders, whom team supporters have viciously criticized at public meetings;
• Competitor schools, which have long griped about Bellevue’s questionable methods;
• The Washington Interscholastic Activities Association (WIAA) itself, which hired investigators who some boosters and some coaches have said conducted an overly aggressive, racially biased inquiry.
Here’s a look at the path ahead.
What’s the next step?
Right now, the ball is in the school district’s hands. Superintendent Tim Mills said he was concerned about complaints he’s received over the way the WIAA investigators conducted the probe. He also said issues raised by the report may require immediate action.
With the findings in hand, the school district could potentially challenge the interpretation of the rules by appealing to the WIAA executive board. But if the district agrees violations exist, the school is responsible for reporting those infractions to the KingCo Conference, composed of officials from more than a dozen high schools in the area. It’s unlikely the Wolverines would get a sympathetic ear at KingCo, as some officials and coaches at those high schools have long complained about the Bellevue football program.
Once KingCo officials have been notified the high school wants to self-report, they would hold a hearing to allow the school to detail the violations and propose its own sanctions. On Friday, the district said it anticipated having a hearing by May 16. The hearing committee would then rule on Bellevue’s sanction plan and has the option of adding sanctions beyond what the school proposes.
Could the coaches or boosters challenge any findings or sanctions?
Team supporters have been trying to discredit the WIAA report for months. Now that the report is out, they contend that it is wildly inaccurate. Connors recently told The Seattle Times the booster club didn’t violate any WIAA rules whatsoever.
The booster club is “presenting the facts whenever and wherever we can,” he said. What the boosters do next depends on how the Bellevue district and KingCo proceed in the coming days and weeks.
If the district agrees there are problems, the team might not have much recourse in defending itself. WIAA rules allow for the school to appeal sanctions. But if the district is the one determining the sanctions, it doesn’t seem likely that school officials would appeal.
Moreover, the appeals process would ultimately place the determinations into the hands of the WIAA executive board. If the booster club or coaches want to make their own case, it may require legal action.
Is it possible the investigators misinterpreted WIAA rules?
The investigation was led by two former senior federal prosecutors, not a former athletic director or other official intimately familiar with high-school sports. That could be seen as a good thing: They were not part of the high-school sports culture.
On the other hand, boosters and coaches contend the investigators misunderstood and misapplied WIAA rules.
For example, the report determined that the booster club violated limits on coaching stipends — a rule that says coaching payments of more than $500 “in a season” need to be approved by the Bellevue School Board first. The booster club says the payments to head coach Butch Goncharoff — some $60,000 a year — were OK because money compensated him for his activities outside the football season.
The problem the team faces is that the WIAA’s staff members seem to agree with the investigation’s conclusions. Mike Colbrese, the WIAA executive director, wrote the school district when the investigation was complete, summarizing the findings of the report and explaining why those findings were considered rules violations.
Where’s the school board in all this?
Bellevue School District board members have mostly stayed silent, although that’s beginning to change.
At their last meeting, before release of the report, board members told the audience they were concerned about the tone and direction of the WIAA investigation. They wondered aloud whether they should have done more to support the football community.
Now with the report in hand, those board members are expected to begin taking stronger positions when they convene again Tuesday. “The press has fueled so much conversation in this process, I think it’s important we not fuel that with individual comments,” said President Christine Chew. “I know we’ll talk about it some more at our next meeting.”
What are the potential punishments?
Both the WIAA handbook and the KingCo handbook lay out potential sanctions for rules violations. They vary greatly, from the school writing a mea-culpa letter — to the school being expelled entirely from the WIAA.
The WIAA handbook includes some rough guidelines for punishments in three levels of violations:
• Level 1 violations, reserved for self-reported violations or those that were not willfully committed, could result in probation, a short suspension and forfeiture of games.
• Level 2 violations, for willful violations or those reported by others, could result in a suspension for up to half a season and forfeiture of games.
• Level 3 violations, for recruitment or a “blatant disregard for rule(s),” could result in a full-year suspension and forfeiture of games
When a previous Seattle Times investigation of the Chief Sealth women’s basketball program found recruiting violations and fake leases, the WIAA stripped the team of two state titles. Bellevue has won 11 state football titles since 2001.
Does the district or high school face any other legal perils?
Quite possibly, says Janet Chung, the staff attorney for Seattle-based nonprofit Legal Voice, an organization that advocates for legislation in the Pacific Northwest that advances and protects women’s rights.
The WIAA report did note the booster club’s significant financial support of the football team raised questions whether the high school has complied with Title IX requirements to ensure equality between programs for each gender. The booster club paid $588,568 to football coaches alone between 2002 and 2012, and nearly $80,000 a year more recently for a five-day summer football camp, the report said.
“The Booster Club’s financial support of the football summer camp clearly constitutes a remuneration or inducement not available to all BHS students,” the report said.
A federal law introduced in 1972, Title IX prohibits gender-based discrimination in education. On the broadest level, it requires institutions that receive federal funding to distribute resources equitably between male and female students.
“The bottom line is that any kind of outside donation that goes to a sports team is part of what is considered when you look at a school’s Title IX obligations,” Chung said.
The district and high school cannot claim ignorance about all the money flooding into the football program, Chung said. They need to ensure that funds are distributed equitably among girls’ and boys’ athletic programs.
The U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights is responsible for investigating any complaints involving suspected Title IX violations. Chung said complaints are most commonly initiated by parents or students.