In a ruling that reverberated across school districts statewide, the Massachusetts Interscholastic Athletic Association on Saturday denied a last-minute appeal from Boston Public Schools officials and forced Fenway High School's boys' and girls' basketball teams to forfeit their entire seasons for competing with players who were deemed ineligible.
As reported by Bob Hohler of The Boston Globe, it represented the latest indignity inflicted on student-athletes in the Boston Public Schools and has "deprived the teams of postseason tournament berths and unjustly cast them as rule-breakers because of a crushing bureaucratic failure in the system’s chronically overburdened athletic department."
As a result, the MIAA state basketball tournaments opened Tuesday without Fenway and at least four other teams — the Canton and Stoughton boys, and the Clinton and Fontbonne girls — that were knocked out of contention because of Fenway’s forfeits, Hohler reports.
And it was nobody's fault but the BPS athletic department, which inexplicably neglected to submit a form to the MIAA that would have made the players in question eligible to compete for the Fenway teams.
Fenway’s head of school, Geoff Walker, met with his basketball teams to discuss the bureaucratic failure, and praised the students for embodying the school’s motto: “Work hard. Be yourself. Do the right thing.”
“The kids and the teams lived up to our motto all year,” Walker said in an interview. “They acted ethically and worked hard on the court. It’s hard for them and for our school not to be able to participate in the tournament when they were under the impression they were doing everything right. It’s a hard pill to swallow.”
In a subsequent letter to the teams, Walker wrote, “I have met with the BPS Superintendent, Athletic Director, Director of Operations, and others to express my concerns about this situation and they have told me they will be looking into why this happened and what they can do so that such a situation does not happen again.”
A spokeswoman for BPS Superintendent Brenda Cassellius told the Globe, “BPS owns this mistake. Appropriate action is being taken to hold staff who were responsible for this mistake accountable.”
Fenway, like many Boston schools, has no gymnasium. Since 2018, when the new Dearborn STEM Academy opened in Roxbury, the Fenway teams have practiced and played their home games at Dearborn. Because Dearborn does not offer interscholastic basketball programs, several of its students in recent years have played with the Fenway boys’ and girls’ teams, including two girls and five boys this year, Hohler reported.
Similar cooperative arrangements are common across Boston’s public schools, and the MIAA recognizes cooperative arrangements, so long as the participating schools are registered with the MIAA. The challenge in Boston is that BPS has 31 high schools and only one athletic director who manages a small staff in antiquated offices.
Nearly all suburban districts have one athletic director per high school. In Boston, Avery Esdaile and his staff are responsible for scheduling, staffing, transportation, equipment and many other duties, including monitoring academic eligibility and student medical evaluations across the city.
At least 25 Boston high schools are registered with the MIAA. Dearborn was not, because Esdaile’s office failed to submit the paperwork it received from Dearborn to file with the MIAA.
On Feb. 2, the MIAA notified Esdaile’s office of the alleged violation, but the athletic department did not respond, according to MIAA executive director Bob Baldwin. He said in an interview that BPS failed to respond to five subsequent notices until the school district finally acknowledged the violation Feb. 25, the day the MIAA was trying to determine the seeding for its postseason basketball tournaments.
According to Hohler's report, Walker wrote in his letter to the students, “While we acknowledge the mistake by the BPS athletics department, we emphasized in our appeal that students should not be punished for an oversight that had nothing to do with them. We are disappointed in the MIAA’s decision not to allow our students to participate.”
Baldwin said, “We care for the kids and feel terrible, but we’re making a decision for the greater good and for those that didn’t violate the rules. Otherwise, why have rules?”
He said BPS responded so late to the MIAA’s notifications that it caused havoc with seeding the boys’ and girls’ tournaments. “It affected the entire mathematics of the whole process,” Baldwin said. “It had ramifications for almost every school.”