Welcome, 13th-Graders Rhee opens up prep sports to fifth-year seniors, with unintended consequences.

Seeing Redshirt: Rhee’s decision has local Catholic schools threatening to snub DCIAA teams.
Darrow Montgomery/File

Out of sight. Out of mind. But still on the books.

That’s apparently the status of the so-called “redshirt rule” that allows fifth-year seniors at D.C.’s public high schools to remain athletically eligible.

And, unless that rule is done away with, this week’s city title basketball game at Verizon Center—the 41st game in an annual series between the champions of the D.C. Interscholastic Athletic Association (DCIAA), the District’s public-schools league, and the Washington Catholic Athletic Conference (WCAC)—will be the last.

“We won’t play schools that allow a fifth year,” says Dan McMahon, principal of DeMatha, winner of a record 19 city title games. “That would change everything. You’d get kids who’d come in for a redshirt year. That would create a situation that, well—holy smokes. But I think that’s a dead issue around here. At least, I hope like heck it is.”

Sorry, Principal McMahon. The redshirt rule lives on.

“That rule is still in place,” says Mafara Hobson, spokesperson for the D.C. Public Schools.

Hobson’s boss, schools Chancellor Michelle Rhee, quietly enacted the controversial edict on Oct. 4, 2007. The Washington Post reported in November that Rhee got personally involved in the case of Josh Stover, a football-playing student who was held back for a year because of administrative snafus while he was transferring from Ballou to H.D. Woodson. Hobson confirms the accuracy of that Post report.

At the time, athletes in the DCIAA, like their peers in essentially all public and private school leagues in the United States, were only eligible for eight consecutive semesters beginning with their first day of high school. But Rhee gave Stover permission to play football in his fifth year of high school.

And she didn’t stop there. Though Stover’s situation was hardly commonplace—he attended three different high schools—Rhee used his case to install a blanket change to the system. Hobson says Rhee worked with lawyers to draw up a change to city regulations that allowed all DCPS students who were held back academically for a year of high school to play their fourth season of any sport during their fifth year of high school, assuming they regained academic eligibility.

In other words, D.C. student-athletes can now be redshirted. All they have to do is fail a grade.

Allen Chin, DCPS’ longtime director of athletics, was taken out of the decision-making loop shortly after Rhee took office, and he was not involved in Stover’s reinstatement or the eligibility rule change.

Rhee, Hobson says, had no background in high school athletics before becoming chancellor. Rhee’s first foray into sports shocked local prep-sports officials—redshirting is a college practice, not common in high schools. After the Post’s story on Stover, coaches and administrators from WCAC schools, including powerful DeMatha, declared that D.C.’s eligibility change threatened all future competitions between the public and private schools.

The rule is ripe for abuse, since the extra year gives redshirted athletes a huge advantage not only on the field of play but in the competition for college scholarships. That’s why the trend in prep athletics over the last several years has been toward tightening eligibility rules. By now, only a few private schools allow redshirt athletes to play their senior seasons, and those that do have been booted out of mainstream prep athletic circles.

Virginia and Maryland public schools, like the WCAC, won’t play schools that allow redshirting. Many ranking services, including Rivals.com, refuse to include schools that grant eligibility to fifth-year seniors. Even Stu Vetter, the Montrose Christian coach who built nationally ranked programs at several area private schools using redshirt high school athletes, has stopped filling his roster with 13th-graders.

After local administrators let their displeasure with the rule be known, Rhee told the Post that she intended to amend the rule so players must play in four consecutive seasons and meet age restrictions—which would still allow redshirting, but only for those who sit out their freshman years. According to WCAC officials, Rhee also contacted the league and said she didn’t realize the ramifications of her action and led officials to believe the rule that put Stover back on the field would go away.

“It was my understanding that that issue has been dropped,” says WCAC Commissioner Jim Leary.

Hardly. Hobson says Rhee is now convinced that her rule works. The proof comes from Stover, who went on to star at linebacker for Woodson on the way to helping the Warriors to a berth in the Turkey Bowl, the public-schools championship game. He recently made a verbal commitment to play college ball at Kent State. That, Hobson says, “is an example of what [Rhee]’s trying to do: to allow students to be able to qualify for scholarships.”

Given the uproar over the rule that erupted last year, the strong support for the controversial measure stuns me. So I ask Hobson if she is indeed sure that the rule is still on the books and that Rhee plans to allow fifth-year high school students to remain athletically eligible.

“Am I sure? I’m sure,” she says.

Hobson then provides an example of how Rhee’s eligibility rule will work: A student who plays football in 9th and 10th grades runs into academic trouble during the spring semester of his sophomore year and must repeat a year, during which he is not eligible to play. But, in the repeat year, his grades improve. He can then play in 11th and 12th grades.

“You can’t play five years,” Hobson says. “You get four athletic years out of five school years.”

Yup. That’s redshirting. And so much for “consecutive.”

Hobson says the school system has not started keeping records on how many fifth-year athletes are playing in the DCIAA. But for the WCAC, even one more could be too many and could stop momentum that has been building between the public and private schools to intensify their athletic relationship.

The key step in that process would be restoring the city title football game, which has been defunct since the 1962 game. Blood rivals St. John’s and Eastern brought 50,033 spectators to D.C. Stadium (later RFK), the largest crowd ever to see any sporting event in the District to that point, but that game ended with a brawl between St. John’s mostly white following and Eastern’s mostly black fans. School officials quickly canceled future football title games in the name of safety.

Recently, there’s been talk about rekindling the football championship game, but a disagreement over when such a game would be held—Leary says WCAC won’t agree to any date after Thanksgiving weekend, while the DCIAA, given the success of its intraleague Turkey Bowl, wants to continue holding its own league championship on Thanksgiving Day—has prevented any deals thus far.

If no city title football game can be worked out, the WCAC has proposed a multigame, season-starting event that would borrow the format of college basketball’s ACC/Big Ten Challenge. The WCAC is also interested in installing a baseball competition, either a tournament or a championship matchup, with the public schools.

But if the DCIAA does indeed become a redshirt friendly league—and if the Rhee Rule stays in place, it surely will—no new matchups will come about. And the city title basketball game will go away.

“We won’t allow it,” says DeMatha’s McMahon.

Our Readers Say

How hypocritical is it of Dematha to be against this rule when they have "recruited" inner city athletes for years whose families couldn't afford their tuition if they tried to. The mysterious scholarship gift always arrives in time to provide these blue chip ballers with a way in. After recruiting players they have watched since Boys Club games, draining inner city schools of their best athletes, Dematha is threatening not to play DCIAA teams. What are they afraid of, a level playing field! Chancellor Rhee is seeking away to get more inner city athletes in to college. Something Dematha used to be about.
Hey, Dematha what are you afraid of? It seeems to me that Rhee is doing
what is best for the students.
Both the above comments are ignorant.
DCPS should be worried about improving the education of the kids in it’s system. HS is supposed to 4 years not 5. No wonder why MD and VA have better public school systems. Instead of worry about DeMatha recruiting players who play for 4 years and go to college how about you copy what they do instead of giving us the current state of DC schools.
allowing 19...and what could be 20 year olds play varsity football is outrageous...just from a physical maturity standpoint there would be an advantage !! Plus kids worried about playing time could purposely flunk to gain an extra year...or advised to do so by corrupt coaches and advisors....really disappointed in the lack of emphasis on athletics...once again we are telling the young black kids in the area that the only way to succeed is through athletics. Parents should be in an uproar for a policy that gives incentive to failing. That's the reason for taking away playing privileges in the 1st place...to scare the kids into doing their work. GIVE OUR KIDS CONFIDENCE THAT THEY CAN SUCCEED IN THE CLASSROOM......WHERE IS THE DAMN MAYOR ! Too much room for abuse of said policy. I went to school on a football scholarship and played the 1st 6 games of the COLLEGE SEASON AS A 17 year old because my 18th birthday came in the 2nd week of October.....the 1st 6 games of my junior year as 19 year old awating my 20th birthday...if at that age I was still paying against high school kids I would have killed them on the field !!!
In addition

Also local schools refusing to play us hinders our kids exposure, limits the amount of games they would play and contradicts the very theory that this 5th year program gives the kids a better chance at a scholarship!! Percentage wise only about 1 percent of the kids playing football get scholarships anyway.
The sweeping changes that Chancellor Rhee has made have been in a word, RIDICULOUS! The City Title game is a very important game for both the DCIAA and WCAC schools. This rule forces the WCAC to pull out. They have had the policy of not playing fifth-year eligible schools for a long time. That's why there were never games between DeMatha and Flint Hill, for example.

For the DC Public Schools, winning the DCIAA title is not enough and the loss of publicity will severly hurt the public schools when it comes to college recruiting time.
What? It does not guarantee that it will make you bigger and better in a sport! Would the same outcry be for the student who's the valdictorian or salutorian...who's found out to be the 19 year or 20 year old graduating student? Would you penalized the student who was kept back because their parent felt that they weren't ready for the next grade-level? Who has not seen the calculating parent in regards to academic scholarships; like all of our applications only high-schools honor students are local residents (surely you just).

Yes, the abuse is a possibility but if we know better then we do better. Why can't a preventive measure be implicated...this will definitely mean that an academic advisor will have to be dedicated to the sport programs.

All in all it is not the children who will manipulate the system it is the adults and to that is the shameful discussion
Allowing troubled students to continue their athletic careers through their senior year, whether or not it is a 4th or 5th year will go a long way in keeping them in school and motivated to actually graduate. Perhaps this isn't "fair" to the area prep schools who don't allow a redshirt season, but also isn't fair that anyone has to attend high school at a DC public school in the state they are in right now. Cutting our public school students a small break like this is just one step that Rhee is taking in the right direction.
Will some of you people listen to yourselves this is not redshirt at all. In college if you are redshirt ONE you made it to college and two who have to maintain academic eligibility. This rule in DC allows for a student to FAIL come bake and play his sport. If you fail out during your redshirt year of college you do not come back and play. DC is not keep stats on this rule because it does not and will not help academically this is about DC trying to win a stupid City Title game. They are risking the futures of kids for one basketball game. The preps do not allow 5th year players because you must perform in the class room too. DC must start setting that standard first.
The future of these underpriveleged students is far more important than an overpaid coach's record.

"No wonder why MD and VA have better public school systems." - Great stuff, too funny. You nailed it, buddy.
The 5th Year Senior would be taking playing time away from a schoolmate, not a kid from a different private school. Most likely to suffer would be a 4 year student who managed to remain academically eligible, but sits on the sidelines while a bigger 19 year old 5th year senior dominates playing time.

In endurance and strength sports, the difference in age can make a huge difference on the field.
Listen every situations diffrent. To stop a kid from sports just because hes 19 is not right. The rules were recently changed because it use to take place not to long ago but since it changed the rule should be enforced to stop chances of success. Not everyone is in these situations by self behavior but by unfortunate situations. I mean if you could allow other issues in todays society get ignored thats far more important then athletic eligibility then what does that make you a person against youth success. Its a well known fact that if your wrong doin bad and dont care then you shouldnt play. But right is right people dont have sympathy unless its them or there child your quicker to take a dream then to help make a dream come true I am 19 and havent even played my freshman year so why shouldnt I be allowed full eligibility im hurt because people deserve second chances it should be based on judgement of the coaches principles and based on academics. There always advantages how about which schools get more funds what kids have wealther parents which neans better equipment and facilities. Its not important hun kids shouldnt be favored all should have equal oppurtunity work hard and best man wins the spot the whole point of playing a competitive sport. Now look at it if the shoe was on your foot.......$incere

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