All that was required to make the Bellevue High School football imbroglio a reality-TV smarmadrama was a good conspiracy theory. Butch Goncharoff, the soon-to-be-ex-coach of the beleaguered Wolverines, identified one Tuesday at a packed public meeting of the Bellevue School Board.
“This,” he said, “was a set-up.”
Then Goncharoff walked away from the microphone to a rousing ovation from BHS students, including many team members and their parents. Whoo-boy. After a set of sanctions that were handed down Tuesday from the Kingco League that shocked the BHS football crowd and delighted the communities whose teams have been victims of the Wolverines’ dynasty, it appears that a courtroom donnybrook is imminent.
If we’re lucky, it will tear apart the structure of high school sports in the state. Like an old barn somehow surviving in the Midwest’s Tornado Alley, it’s overdue to come down. Let’s set aside for now the discussion of guilt or innocence, for which there is likely to be endless disclosures and contradictions.
Instead, let’s take at look at the themes in the conversation that need to be disabused immediately for those among us who have a hankering for clarity and honesty.
“What about the children?”
Stop. This. Now.
This is not, and has never been, about kids. This is about winning. Big winning. Many coaches and parents would have it no other way. Seahawks Pete Carroll should have known better than to send this tweet:
It's sad & unfortunate that grownups have taken football away from kids because of grownup problems. That's just wrong. #BellevueFootball
— Pete Carroll (@PeteCarroll) June 8, 2016
The sanctions do not stop the Bellevue program from practicing and playing a full season. It simply will be banned from the glam: No titles, no postseason, no big-time non-conference games. If that’s a hardship, go ask opponents beaten by Bellevue 48-0 over the years.
This isn’t the tech industry employment scene, where free food, free parking and a free gym are mandatory perks. This is public high school ball. Remember the biggest lesson from your own schoolyard days: No one likes entitled assholes.
“But the kids are innocent victims.”
Wrong. Any kid who is part of creating a phony residence, or attending phony tutoring, knows exactly why and how it’s being done. So do all of his friends/teammates, because no kid can keep a secret like that.
As for younger kids as yet uncompromised by the scandal who “pay a price” for the sins of predecessors: It’s unfortunate, but can a more real lesson be taught in high school that life sometimes is unfair?
“Boosters just want what is best for kids.”
While undoubtedly true, that is a fig leaf to cover a multitude of shenanigans. Whether it’s Bellevue High School or the University of Washington or any program that aspires to the big time, they portray the offer of a few bucks, or finding a soft teacher who wants to help a kid from a poor school district, as understandable acts of human compassion.
But the acts undercut the entire fabric of fairness that is the basis by which schools agree to band together to form leagues and conferences. Wealthy schools such as Bellevue, and wealthy school districts like Bellevue, have advantages over, say, Seattle Metro, that administrators over the decades have tried to mitigate with restrictions that advance fair play.
It isn’t that Goncharoff, as well as many coaches who do hard work well, didn’t deserve better compensation, it’s that $60,000 annually again rips at the principle of fairness.
Parents such as booster club president John Connors often have come to wealth by being ruthless in business. Connors, who said this week the group is preparing lawsuits against the BSD and WIAA, didn’t get to be the chief financial officer at Microsoft by making sure his peers at Apple had the same resources as the Redmond computer shop.
As with many who reach the pinnacle, they do whatever it took to win, regardless of cost or consequence. Apparently he’s having a hard time with the quasi-socialism of public high school sports.
“Everybody else is doing it.”
If you’ve never heard this/tried this/argued against this lameness, you have never been a child/parent/human. So please consider leaving your human habitat life here and getting employed on Wall Street, where the weasel community flourishes unwatched, ungoverned, unhindered.
“The Washington Interscholastic Activities Association is incompetent.”
Duh. The parents, coaches and administrators wouldn’t have it any other way. If they want it another way, they are free to change it. As I’ve written about the NCAA administration and its bylaws, this is not governance imposed by the Taliban. The NCAA and WIAA are more or less trade associations designed to promote the welfare of their memberships, in all its diversity and conflicted agendas.
What the WIAA and NCAA do best is make sure the football fields are 100 yards, the free throw line is 15 feet and the tournament brackets line up. Beyond that is nothing but quagmire. Eligibility-rules enforcement is notably underfunded, bewildered, confused and subject to personal biases.
Here’s the key point in this essay: That’s the way everyone wants it. To do better would be to invest heavily in detectives and compliance officers to check the dozens of eligibility issues that arise annually whenever talented athletes show up to disrupt the balance of power.
The NCAA gets regularly shamed into improving enforcement by every busted school claiming their misdeeds go on elsewhere, unpunished. But the NCAA is awash in cash. The WIAA, just as every prep sports association of its kind in every state, is not. Yet as inept as the governance may be, decisions are final because there is no higher authority. Ineffectual as it is, the system wobbles along mostly based on trust among the “governed.”
Competitive coaches and athletics directors more or less have to trust that rivals don’t go over the line. Much. Co-existence is based mostly on the “I won’t tell on you if you don’t tell on me” code. That’s a lousy model when parents are screaming at each coach that their kid needs a college scholarship or he’s doomed to drugs and despair.
But when a school like Bellevue breaks form with top facilities, a well-compensated staff, talented kids who show up from long distance to help win 11 state championships in 15 years, that’s when it all breaks down.
Envy and jealousy set in. That’s when Goncharoff intimates conspiracy with his comment about “a set-up from day one.”
As tawdry as this episode will be if the Bellevue boosters follow through on their lawsuit, deploying subpeonas to produce depositions that will pants everyone, including themselves, there is at least a chance that tearing down the most successful program in state prep sports history will have one salutary impact.
If that doesn’t become the goal, a colossal waste of time and school resources are at hand.
The next question: What about private schools? Many think they have an unfair advantage in sports because of no school district boundaries, more affluent families, etc. I’m convinced people will target Eastside Catholic, O’Dea and the like when this Bellevue thing gets resolved.
What about them? They don’t have the geographical constraints yet generally have funding, admittance and size constraints.
A lot of people suspect certain private schools of shady recruiting and booster practices like Bellevue’s. True or not, the perception is there, and if Bellevue’s appeal fails, the knives will be out.
Private schools are not under the restrictions of public schools. How would you restrict private schools to attendance rules? By limiting them to so many miles from the school? For everyone, or just kids who turn out for sports? A really dumb idea.
Actually, from my perspective, it was the private schools that rose to the Bellevue challenge. When Eastside Catholic played Bellevue in the state championship two years ago its coaches were specific: The team had been put together to defeat Bellevue, according the Seattle Times. Each school had the backing of wealthy boosters. The difference? If Bellevue athletes got into academic trouble, as some of them did, they could enroll at AI. That’s within the WIAA’s rules because if a high school has no athletic program – and AI didn’t – students could play sports at the nearest public school. As for students who might be in trouble academically at EC, EC is a private school, those matters can be kept in house. But EC wasn’t alone. Why was Bishop Blanchet’s coach fired two years ago? The boosters were paying tuition for athletes who were brought to the North Seattle school from far, far down I-5. After that coach was terminated, several of those kids flowed down the hill to finish their careers at Ballard, whose coach had such a successful season that he got hired at Kennedy Catholic. Perhaps his greatest challenge at Burien-based Kennedy? Keeping local kids around who seem to be finding their way far, far to the east to a school on the Sammamish Plateau. The reform Art Thiel speaks of may have to include some regulations that prevent private schools from assembling what are essentially select football programs.
To clarify, for Bellevue boosters to have paid while parking athletes at AI, though within WIAA rules, was reprehensible.
Spot on as usual Art. Great writing.
Whenever I see rabid parents who are boosters of HS sports, particularly football, it reminds me of guys who at best only played HS ball and housewives who are bored with too much time on their hands. Overzealous parents, while it’s great they have an interest in their child’s sports, also seem to attach much too much personal value to these teams’ success. That said, Goncharoff clearly had lost control of his program years ago and for him to feign ignorance would simply be to lie. No one who can coach that successfully can also be so dumb, so that simply is no excuse.
The Kingco conference FINALLY got around to making the decision that is what, 3-5 years late? BHS has been a steamroller for at least 10 years, using players who are not from the district and whose education in the pre-high school courses they took were paid for by boosters. The whole thing was crooked and Goncharoff needs to just go away, together with the booster club, which BHS should disband.
Excellent essay. Give ’em hell Art.
The kids aren’t being punished. None of them are being suspended. No one is being required to turn in any mementos. No one is being told to turn in any pictures that were taken. None of them are being fined. It’s all on the coaches and the school and there’s a very visible paper trail to support the accusations. The sanctions are very strong but it’s obvious that a message is being sent across the state to any and all schools to start doing things clean if they aren’t already.
Without getting into the details listening to Butch Goncharoff’s interviews and statements it seemed to me he wasn’t denying at least some of the accusations, only trying to rationalize them and justify the boosters and schools’s actions. That in itself proved there’s huge problems within the athletic department that his school is blind to.
the kids are being punished – can’t go to summer camp — can’t play any preseason games (missing out on at least 2 games per year).. and taking away another 3 or 4 games for playoffs…. my son did NOTHING wrong – going into his junior year – and can’t play a game until mid september – when all others have played at least 2.. and not able to play in the playoffs… why not audit the entire roster – making sure all the kids DO live in bellevue — and allow them to play… do NOT punish the existing kids for past issues….
Good commentary, Art, but I have a question for you. You mention the word reform at the end of it so I would ask, what type of reform would you propose?
A rewrite of the WIAA rulebook to standards the schools are willing and able to enforce. If the boosters are right that there was no violation of compensation rules, then what’s the point?
More broadly, consider open enrollment for all — students can choose their high schools. Lots of problems with that too, but it’s already the case for private schools. They have no geographic limits, yet play public schools.
If open enrollment were the case, schools can specialize in fields and in extra curricular activities. Do all schools need football, music, shop, debate, etc? Or can all schools offer non-redundant specialties?
I think some districts offer open enrollment. My brother lives near one high school, but his kids went to another in the same district but further away, because they didn’t like the nearby school.
There’s also the new phenomenon of high schools focusing on certain subjects and trades. I know Sammamish is becoming a STEM school concentrating on tech/engineering, and there are those performing arts high schools (the movie “Fame”). It wouldn’t be a stretch if some schools chose extracurricular activities appropriate to their student bodies; I can’t see a performing arts school with a basketball team, for example.
I believe Bellevue already is an open enrollment district (and possibly Tacoma, too). Believe me, for academic reasons, I would love it if Washington schools had open enrollment. But there are entrenched political and union opponents who would smash that.
Art – always like your articles but I did want to add some
information to this piece. Due to a lack
of Seahawk and UW/WSU Football news lately I have been following and reading
all the available documentation on this soap opera investigation into high
In regards to playing a full schedule, it appears they will
be limited to league only games, so not just “big” but no out of conference
games, and no post season for four years.
It looks like the Kingco 3A is a pretty small league with only 6 members
so this is a 5 game schedule per year v. a normal 9-10 game Schedule Plus
On the addresses of athletes, this is perplexing to me as I
always assumed and haven’t seen anything in the documents that disputes this,
that the School District not the High School is responsible for address verification and
clearance of a student for each school (athlete or not). Of the five or six that have been reported to falsify their addresses (I don’t have the district
report at my fingertips) none appear to be a current
player at BHS.
I believe in equitable sports and neighborhood schools, I
think there are more than a few other programs in a variety of sports that need to be looked at as well and agree that we need a new system to reorganize, restructure and monitor the High School athletics in this State.
On your comments:
“ attending phony tutoring” , I’m confused, in your article right
after this comment you posted the Kingco report and it addresses this in
Allegation #6 – No Violation?
“As for younger kids as yet uncompromised by the stink who “pay a price” for the sins of predecessors: Can a more real lesson be taught in high school that life sometimes is unfair?” – Being a father, grand-father and longtime coach I was taken back by its complete lack of empathy. I am not alone on this, in a coffee meeting
with mostly all ex coaches we were unanimous in our disappointment that the
most serious of penalties were directed at the students and not at the
Conference, District, Booster Club and Coaches who created this whole mess
through their actions and indifferences to their accountability to each other.
It is difficult to believe that all this is just coming out now as bad as it is being portrayed and that it has gone on for 15 years? If it has been this bad, where and what have the WIAA, District and Conference been doing?
Walt Whitman once said “I do not ask the wounded person how he feels, I myself become the wounded person”. These young men that you are referring to
teaching a lesson to (some of them 8th graders) that life is not fair, is in my opinion insensitive.
To put these proposed Sanctions in perspective, I follow the NCAA pretty closely, these sanctions fall right behind the SMU death penalty. Right or wrong they are move severe than those penalties received by USC, Oklahoma, Florida, University of Miami, Michigan and Penn State for very serious transgressions. The major differences is
the penalties at the NCAA level while only 1-2 years represent a significant
economic hit. The other difference is that the student athletes can transfer to another school.
In high school most students have no options other than to attend their local school. The effected students, grades 8-11 at BHS and the corresponding Middle School are pretty much being told that their high school football career is going to be extremely limited.
Again, fair or unfair most will have no choices or options. I am sure some will transfer
to other schools, some are most likely already being recruited by the Private
If these sanctions stand (as it appears the School District is trying to intervene) perhaps Bellevue should do what I saw in a previous post, shut down their program for four years to allow their players to move en masse to another conference school. Between the transfers and the options being thrown out there due to these sanctions this will provide an all new story to follow.
Again, I enjoy your articles, but after reading a good majority of the information on this subject now and looking back on the original Times articles there seems to be a good
amount of mis-information out there (granted there is a tremendous amount of it
out there from a variety of parties) and I just wanted to point out a couple
things that stood out in my mind which I think changed how I viewed your
article. Keep up the good work and articles.
Thanks for a well-reasoned response, Nicholas. As I wrote, I was attempting to address overriding themes and not parse the particulars, which likely will be worth doing as more information becomes available.
The false-address issue has plagued every school district in the nation. Responsibilities for verification can be different in each locality, but apparently the independent investigators found past abuses. The fact that no current players are in violation changes nothing about the history.
You are right in that other sports in other schools and districts have similar misdeeds. But after 11 championships and a boatload of rumors as well as facts, the spotlight has fallen at the top, which is reasonable.
The phony tutoring issue was presented in the SeaTimes as well as the independent report. The fact that the district/ADs chose not to call it a violation can be a function of a variety of things, including a subsequent lack of cooperation by witnesses. Remember, there is no subpoena power here, so truth-telling is elusive. But dubious academic standards for top athletes continues to be a long-standing tradition in colleges — see North Carolina — and happens in prep sports in many places. The AI “diploma mill” is an odious example.
Your bewilderment over the duration of misdeeds is understandable. But consider how difficult it was for newspaper and WIAA-hired independent investigators to pull together this evidence when, as was claimed in the latter, there was a lack of cooperation by district and school officials. Again, this is not a criminal or civil court action, but investigations of claims of violations of a trade association’s bylaws and/or school/district policies of a highly valued local institution. No one at the school/district wanted to offer info that may lead to a downfall.
And regarding punishment falling on uninvolved kids, it is a regrettable but unavoidable consequence of punishment for institutional wrongdoing. Happens all the time at the NCAA level. Coaches and administrators can certainly be fired, and boosters banned, but limits on the institution and its students are part of developing a serious standard that will discourage a repeat not only at Bellevue, but anywhere in the state. I will speculate, but do not know, that any football player who felt unfairly impacted will be able to petition to transfer without penalty to another school in the district with a full schedule.
Walt Whitman never had to administer prep sports where every parent thinks he or she is right, and thus coaches/administrators/opponents are wrong. Given the rising costs of college tuition, the values conflict in the schools gets more desperate annually.
I think the length of the punishments was a tactic by the Kingco ADs to leave room for negotiating. Kind of standard stuff in these things when precedents are more limited.
I appreciate you taking time to respond thoughtfully. You also gave me an opportunity here to elaborate.
Nice job, Art. I love Coach Pete, but the “Don’t hurt the kids” argument is a bit pathetic. How about all the kids hurt (one way or another) in a blowout loss to Bellevue? I know you said this, Art, but it bears repeating. How many kids over how many years missed out on the thrill of victory because of this scandal? It’s not too much to ask Bellevue to take a seat for a while.
asking my son to ‘take a seat for a while’ ?! he is going into his junior year — has been playing since 3rd grade — and i am supposed to tell him he can’t start playing until mid september .. and take away his dreams of playing in the playoffs — taking games away and the opportunity to play in playoffs — is not right ! punish the coaches/boosters – but please do NOT punish my son !
What about the kids at other schools that got hurt by this? And when I say “hurt” I mean really hurt. Two years in a row, the Sammamish High School football team was beaten so badly by Bellevue that they had to cancel games because they didn’t have enough uninjured players to field a team. This year, they canceled the entire remainder of the season (losing five games by forfeit), finally adding a final non-conference game so they could have a senior night. Over the last dozen years, Bellevue football has beaten Sammamish by anywhere from 36 to 69 points, for an average of more than 45.
That said, I think the penalty is wrong. Ban the adults (including both paid coaches and volunteers) who participated in this from high school sports for life. Forfeit the 11 championships and the wins from those seasons. Ban students who don’t live in Bellevue’s attendance boundary from playing football at Bellevue for the next 11 years (and allow any current students affected by this ban to transfer back to their home school without penalty). Have an independent third party verify claims that students have moved into the attendance boundary.
The district is equally responsible for allowing this to happen under their watch and turning a blind eye to it. The district ignored reports that coaches were paid out of season, failed to track students transferring to Bellevue for athletic purposes and generally failed to protect the students both at Bellevue High and other schools.
Can’t disagree with anything you wrote Art. Nice job Athletics has nothing to do with academics or fairness. Anybody that thinks so needs to go watch a soccer tie. I prefer not to be bored to tears
Art, I take it your lack of affection for the wall st. weasel community will keep you from making any national political endorsements?
This giant, Goliath, has been around longer than most of us have lived. And everywhere, not just Washington state. Unfortunately, I don’t see a David here to cut off Goliath’s head after the stone from his sling knocked the giant out. The beat will go on.
BHS is representative of many powerhouse programs in many states nationwide. The values conflict is almost impossible to regulate. It has to be done on the honor system.
Alas, good luck with that.
Thank you Art Thiel. I have been following this story with a mixture of bemusement and disgust. Thiel, as always, nails it. “What about the kids” my butt. Given the eminence of and reverence in which high school football is treated in these areas, this was bound to happen. Bellevue got caught. The program needs to be held accountable for the behavior of everyone involved…. OK… stepping off soapbox now.
The program, school, district and WIAA all need to be accountable for letting dubious practices reach a point of going front-page nuclear. Many adults were in position to steer a different course. They didn’t, now they reap the whirlwind.
Now that the cesspool of Bellevue football has been exposed (just so classic: I was set up!)…can attention now be turned to the vile swamp that is Federal Way boys basketball for the past decades?
Lots of cesspools and swamps. Have you considered that’s the norm?
NO, it’s NOT the norm. The vast majority of schools play by the rules, and are guided by coaches and administrators of integrity. Bellevue, Federal Way and several others are the exceptions. Go to a Chelan-Brewster game, or a Blaine-Nooksack Valley game and see firsthand how those schools and hundreds of others do it the right way for the benefit of kids and community.