D.C. Public School Sports: Still Unreformed What would it take to actually fix DCPS sports

Gym Shorted: Saah says DCPS disses its athletes.
Photo by Darrow Montgomery

There’s a job opening in the D.C. Public Schools system. The agency is looking for its fourth athletic director in four years.

Eddie Saah is applying for it.

“I sent my résumé in again a month ago,” Saah tells me, laughing. “I dare ’em.”

Saah’s a D.C. native and former athletic director and legendary baseball coach at his alma mater, Wilson Senior High School. This is Saah’s third shot at landing the DCPS job. He tried to get former Chancellor Michelle Rhee to hire him when the city-wide AD position went vacant in 2007, and again when the same job opened up in 2009.

Around the time of the second application, I talked to Saah about the state of D.C. schools. He told me Rhee was going to fail and why.

“You can’t reform schools in this city without reforming athletics,” Saah said.

Saah has spent his life playing, coaching, and administrating sports here. He knows that without sports some portion of the student body would stop going to school altogether. In his estimation, it’s “10 times harder to find a good coach” then a good teacher.

DCPS sports was in a shabby state long before Rhee became chancellor in 2007. But Rhee saw that shabbiness and raised it. Saah judged Rhee as being incapable of doing anything to improve the lousy lot of schoolboy and schoolgirl athletes. So he had trouble taking the rest of her spiel seriously.

He did, though, try to get hired. Saah, who retired from Wilson in 2008, put together a package of ideas that he thought would rejuvenate DCPS sports. Some were mundane but necessary, such as getting DCPS to finally set up a website for athletics the way schools in every other jurisdiction have. Others were bigger, like having RFK Stadium host high school games again. That stadium hasn’t been used regularly for prep sports since 1962, when a race riot broke out in front of 50,033 fans after the City Title game.

He never got to share his brainstorm.

“She had an assistant call me for an interview over the phone,” he says of his 2007 application. “I said, ‘Don’t you want me to come down to talk [to Michelle Rhee] about my ideas?’ She said don’t bother.”

Rhee’s gone, but Saah says her influence on DCPS athletics remains. Seeing the DCPS athletic director’s job open up yet again this summer when Marcus Ellis resigned is proof enough.

Rhee’s first major act as chancellor, remember, was to fire Allen Chin in August 2007. Chin, like Saah, was immersed in D.C. sports. Before serving as DCPS AD for 16 years, Chin spent 18 years as AD at his alma mater, Anacostia Senior High School.

Rhee didn’t hire a permanent AD until 11 months after dumping Chin. In the interim, she unilaterally imposed a “redshirt rule,” which allowed fifth-year high school seniors in the city to remain athletically eligible. Redshirting is banned by the National Federation of State High School Associations because of the competitive advantages it brings to older athletes; all neighboring school districts refuse to play teams that feature fifth-year seniors.

Former Grambling State University athletic director Troy Mathieu became Rhee’s next AD in the summer of 2008. Mathieu resigned in May 2009 after just 10 months on the job. The Washington Post reported that he’d told colleagues that he wasn’t prepared for the administrative dysfunction he experienced in his brief run here.

In August 2009, Rhee filled Mathieu’s empty seat with Ellis, a staffer from the Department of Parks and Recreation. Ellis seemed out of his league, and was often overwhelmed by eligibility issues.

Last football season, for example: Ballou Senior High School beat Dunbar High School, 35-31, to earn its third bid in five seasons to the Turkey Bowl, the annual championship football game. But the thrill of victory vanished when Dunbar coaches complained that Ballou had used an ineligible player. DCPS, like most school systems, has a rule—Rule 2704.18 of the D.C. Municipal Record—requiring that all eligibility protests be filed before the playoffs begin, the better to prevent such 11th-hour challenges and the fiascos they engender.

Unlike most school systems, DCPS doesn’t enforce its rule. So less than 24 hours before the scheduled kickoff of the Turkey Bowl—and with both Ballou and Dunbar still practicing while awaiting a decision—DCPS knocked Ballou out of the title tilt.

The brouhaha broke Ballou Coach Moe Ware’s spirit: “I can’t coach in this city anymore,” Ware told the Washington Post. He resigned this spring.

Signs of the city’s distressed athletic system also show up regularly at Eastern Senior High School, which had to forfeit games at the beginning of the 2010 football season because not enough players came out for the team; the Ramblers had forfeited the entire 2008 season for the same reason. Anacostia also forfeited its first few games last year because it couldn’t dress out the legal minimum number of players.

And the DCIAA girls’ basketball championships in February were also rendered ridiculous because of an eligibility fiasco. (Ellis could not be reached for comment for this column.)Wilson had won a berth to the semifinals with a 50-24 blowout of Ballou; a day later, Wilson was bounced for having a player on the roster who had transferred to Wilson at the beginning of the semester. Ellis deemed her eligible to play at that time. He offered no public explanation for the reversal during the playoff tournament.

These types of Big Game Snafus don’t happen anywhere else around here, but they happen all the time within DCPS.

Saah says he can make necessary reforms, and he’s already lined up a staff and some benefactors to help out.

“I’ve already got five people lined up to work for me [in the DCPS athletics office], and a secretary,” he says. “And I’ve got sponsors, too, people who are desperate to spend money to help out the kids in this city. They’re afraid to give right now because they don’t know who’s going to end up with their money, and they don’t want to throw it away. But they’d give it to me. We’d be organized, man!”

Through a spokesman, Rhee denies accusations that she didn’t take athletics seriously during her run as DCPS chancellor.

“Michelle Rhee understands students with a broad-based curriculum achieve more,” says Hari Sevugan, spokesman for Rhee’s reform advocacy nonprofit StudentsFirst. “That’s why as chancellor Rhee, for the first time in the school district’s history, fought to ensure every school had not only a PE teacher but also art and music teachers and a librarian, and protected those positions in tough budgetary times.”

No deadline for filling the AD job has been announced by DCPS Chancellor Kaya Henderson.

Saah hasn’t yet been invited to interview. Asked if his shot at the job is any better the third time around and with Rhee gone, Saah says, nah.

“They don’t want any part of me,” he says. “They know I’d clean house.”

Read Cheap Seats Daily every weekday at washingtoncitypaper.com/blogs/citydesk.

Our Readers Say

Yo McKenna -- Terrific column; needed to be written. Hope it moves the ball.... Thanks = HarryJ
Another great column Dave-

I agree with Eddie Eddie would make a great AD for DCPS-he knows and loves the kids, knows the problems and has ideas on what to do now. Kaya-hire him now!
Big-game snafus happen all the time and not just in DC.

Look up the case of Robin Ficker's daughter. He filed an injunction to have a state championship cross country race run again because his daughter's coach misread the schedule and got Robin's daughter to the starting line too late and she was DQ'd.

I like bashing DC and the DCPS as much as the next guy, but these screw-ups with eligibility happen ALL THE TIME.

The University of Virginia had to snatch players off the bus to the airport for a bowl game because the former coach and his staff hadn't kept track of who was in good academic standing and who wasn't. Look it.

Ease off on the hyperbole, McKenna. It ruins an otherwise excellent article.
Oh good. He has his staff already picked out...secretary too! Anyone wanna guess how many conflicts of interest are in that pile of non-competitive applicants?

This article is garbage. If this guy wanted an interview for the job, this was the exact wrong way.
DCD: Athletic bungles don't happen anywhere else like they do here, and to argue otherwise is absurd. Your cross country example comes from 1993 and it was sparked by a litigational parent (Robin Ficker, my idol), not incompetence of athletic administrators. And again, you have to go back 18 years for that? And your other example is a college game handled in-house? Come on, DCD. DCPS athletics are so incompetent, several schools don't even offer cross country at all. As for hyperbole, I think I lowballed how bad things are. I only mentioned the messes in the last year with football and basketball -- the only two sports DCPS pays any attention to, and they can't get those right. If I go back 18 years, like you do, I could fill a book with DCPS messups.

And Jason, as far as non-competitive hirings, please pay attention to how the DCPS athletic director's job is filled and the qualifications of the person who eventually gets the gig, and get back to me on how you think that went. OK?
UNLESS THEY CLEAN UP DCPS ATHLETICS THE TEST SCORES AND GRAD RATES WILL CONTINUE TO PRODUCE LOW STATS OF BOTH YOUNG WOMEN AND MEN. IT WILL ALSO KEEP COLLEGIATE PROGRAMS ESPECIALLY IN THIS AREA FROM GOING AFTER DCPS STUDENT ATHLETES.

TAKE HOWARD U. FOR AN EXAMPLE. THERE IS NO WAY THE FOOTBALL OR BASKETBALL PROGRAMS IN THAT SCHOOL SHOULD BE UPSIDE DOWN WITH ALL THE TALENT IN DCPS SYSTEM. DCPS ATHLETICS WITHOUT LEADERSHIP AND WITHOUT SOMEONE WILLING TO LOOK OUT FOR THE CHILDREN AS OPPOSED TO THEIR OWN MOVE UP THE JOB LADDER AGENDA IS THAT THESE YOUNG FOLK IN DCPS WILL CONTINUE TO BE TREATED AS 3RD WORLD KIDS AND IT WOULD BE JUSTIFIED.

COACH SAAH WOULD BE A GOOD CANDIDATE BECAUSE HE KNOWS DCPS ATHLETICS INSIDE AND OUT. HE IS A DCPS ATHLETICS LIFER AND IS CONNECTED TO COLLEGES IN WAY THAT HE CAN IMPLEMENT SOME STANDARDS AND IDEAS THAT WILL BENEFIT THESE CHILDREN IN THE LONG TERM AS OPPOSED TO TREATING THEM AS NUMBERS OR STATS IN THE SHORT TERM.

NEW FIELDS AND SURFACES DO NOT AN ATHLETIC PROGRAM MAKE. THE DC PLAYGROUND LEGENDS HALL OF FAME IS GETTING OVERCROWED. WE NEED TO START GETTING THESE YOUNG FOLK TO WANT TO GO TO SCHOOOL AND MAKE SOMETHING OF THEMSELVES. IT’S ALL ABOUT BALANCE! WOMENS TENNIS AND BASEBALL IS THERE FOR THE TAKING. FOOTBALL AND BASKETBALL ARE NOT THE ONLY SPORTS THAT GIVE OUT MONEY FOR SCHOOL. WE ARE WASTING TIME.

GIVE THE MAN A SHOT!
Oh! Well if Saah gets the job that would mean Dr. Briscoe would be out on her keister. Cleaning the house is not always the issue, maintaining it is the utmost priority. We all know how throwing out the bath water with the baby can result in a Rhee-scenario.

Whomever gets the position will have to deal with the Charter School regime...as they are chomping at the bit to make DCPS look bad in the athletic scheme of things.

Here you have a state of the art athletic DCPS facilities and Friendship PC are in quandary with facilities. Oh! How they would love to upset DCPS in all endeavors.

I thought every body and their momma knew the job was a promotion for the former principal at Eliot-Hines (Mr. Jackson). This advertising is just a farce (oops I mean) formality. As we all know, we don't pre-select in the DC government.
Another great article, Dave. No surprise Michelle Rhee is a shrill, ignorant and bitter cunt. Yeah, great idea to help improve DCIAA athletics, Michelle: Grant fifth-year redshirting for seniors and not only make it even harder for DCIAA schools to schedule non-league games but put another undue hardship on the hardworking student-athletes who bust their asses in the classroom. And you gotta love how Rhee's flack reinforces her brand by referring to her by her first and last names instead of just her first.
Here you go Dave McKenna:

http://bed-stuy.patch.com/articles/seven-bghs-players-are-suspended-putting-state-title-in-jeopardy

And that was just two clicks on Google.

I don't care that DCPS schools don't have cross country. Many have indoor track teams, albeit small, as well as outdoor track, both of which are analogous as....they involve running. What would your solution be to put more sports on the menu for kids in the DCPS? How would you fund the equipment, coaching and training required? In theory, sure, I'd LOVE to see all the DCPS offer cross country, lacrosse, field hockey and softball, etc. What's the solution? Start out grass-roots and offer these sports at the primary school and junior high level as feeders to the high schools? Sure. Who's going to do that, and who's going to pay for it? If there's a demand for competitive swimming at enough DCPS schools, then let's get that done, then. If there's not enough kids to play, then what? Blame the DCPS?

Robin Ficker's daughter was DQ'd because of an athletic administrator, a coach, screwing up and reading a schedule wrong. And that was in peachy-keen Montgomery County. Life has disappointments but maybe Ficker didn't want to believe that. His daughter wasn't "wronged by the system." Shit happens. Folks have to learn to live with it.

I can agree that Rhee's redshirt rule wasn't a good idea, competitvely speaking since most local and national leagues won't play teams that use fifth-year players, but I can understand that she was trying to help the players out academically because, hello, a struggling school system that has some at-risk kids can't hurt these students by having them in school an extra two semesters, right? The kids that can graduate in 8 semesters and are eligible to go to college and play sports aren't held back, so what's the harm to them? None. The harm, though, is either finding quality opponents that WILL play teams with fifth-year players OR holding out fifth-year players when playing a school that requests that concession.

The UVa example was on-point and you know it. Paid professionals handle academic monitoring. And they screwed it up, too. It happens constantly at all levels, all educational levels of the folks involved. Someone's asleep at the switch, it doesn't matter if they've got a pHd or if they're just a local yokel.

As I said earlier, I can go into detail on some pretty bad situations that the DCPS has to deal with athletically. I'm sure there are game officials that don't get paid on time and some rotten facilities/conditions that kids are forced to play in. You've done stories on that over the years.
"...Whomever gets the position will have to deal with the Charter School regime...as they are chomping at the bit to make DCPS look bad in the athletic scheme of things.

Here you have a state of the art athletic DCPS facilities and Friendship PC are in quandary with facilities. Oh! How they would love to upset DCPS in all endeavors."

Envy is so unbecoming, we want all students to succeed, not just students who attend Friendship.
Coach saah is the best there is! He knows what he is doing and would be the BEST person for the job!
My Uncle is the by far the best fit for this position. Sure I'm a little biased but look at his resume and look at what the position needs. Eddie Saah would be a no brainer choice for this spot.
The city needs to give Coach Saah a chance and a serious interview. Sounds like DCPS has suffered with their choices over the past 4 years. Maybe it's time to admit you overlooked the perfect candidate and give him the job. You won't find another as dedicated as him.
Coach Saah doesn't need the job, but DCPS athletics need him! His agenda is to improve the athletics programs so that kids in DC can be encouraged to look toward a brighter future. A better sports program will encourage some kids to actually participate in DC sports, do better in school in order to be eligible to play, stay out of trouble after school, encourage scholarship potential for college and so on.

For anyone who knows Coach Saah, they know he is the only candidate for this position. He has the experience to make a change for the better if they let him!
@DC Dave-HOMEY I THINK THE POINT MCKENNA IS TRYING TO MAKE IS THAT DCPS ATHLETICS HAVE HAD THIS TYPE OF SHIT HAPPEN MORE OFTEN THAN NOT. BECAUSE OF SAID HAPPENINGS ANYTHING ALONG THOSE LINES SHOULD NOT BE HAPPENING NOW GIVEN DCPS FRAGILE STATE.

IF COACHES AND ADMINISTRATORS ARE PUTTING THEIR ‘I WON A CHAMPIONSHIP’ GOALS AHEAD OF DOING THE RIGHT THING HERE IN THIS CITY WHERE THE PUBLIC SCHOOL SYSTEM IS BASICALLY TEETERING ON ABJECT FAILURE AND TO ALLOW DCPS TO BE DISENFRANCHISED BY FOLK (CHARTER SCHOOLS) WHO SEEK GREED AS THEIR GOAL INSTEAD OF A CHILD LEARNING AND BEING A PRODUCTIVE MEMBER OF SOCIETY THEN WHAT ARE WE DOING?

WE HAVE TO PROVIDE THESE CHILDREN WITH SOME REAL BALANCE. THAT IS TRUE ACADEMICS ALONG WITH TRUE ATHLETICS NOT WITH SOME JACKLEG ATHLETIC PROGRAM BOOSTED BY UNREAL NUMBERS OF TEST STATS AND RATES TO GARNER MORE MONEY FOR THAT SCHOOL. DCPS NEED AND SHOULD HAVE AN ATHLETIC DIRECTOR THAT IS PRO-STUDENT ATHLETE ANYTHING LESS WOULD BE UNCIVILIZED.
noodlez,
No need to yell, bro. I'm tried of the typical bullshit about how to write an article in the Washington City Paper---it's too formulaic. It devolves into "the DCPS is ineffective" or "this never happens anywhere like it does here." To the former I say "No shit, Dick Tracy." And the latter, I say "Holy Hyperbole, Batman!" How do you fix this problem? I don't think Eddie Saah or any one man or woman IS the answer. Because the problem's larger than one person having to swoop in with a cape and fix it.
Michelle Rhee comes in. She wants to fire a BUNCH of administrators, principals, teachers and a few coaches. Nobody wants them fired. Why? Because they were doing such a great frickin' job before? We can't give someone else a chance? So now Rhee is out. And now what?
Everybody wants change in the DCPS in the classroom and on the field as far as improvements? But nobody's willing to cut out the decay in order for new growth and ideas to take over and take root so that the next generation might have a chance to do better. That's the steak. Worrying about who got taken out of the Turkey Bowl game? That's the side of au gratin potatoes.
I like most of McKenna's work, but the Washington City Paper, in general, has gotten to be more about assigning blame rather than offering real solutions to problems. And, as far as I'm concerned, DCPS' problem is more about what's going on in the classroom, in the hallways and kids being terrorized by the tough-guys after school than it is about which DCPS team doesn't have track uniforms or an administrator that made a last-minute decision to pull a team off the field that should have been made weeks before.
Fix the truancy rate in DCPS first. Fix the college acceptance rate first. The athletes good enough to get scholarships WILL get them. But the dirty secret about recruiting out of the DCPS isn't how well the kids play in college. College coaches don't recruit here enough because they're afraid that the kids they potentially get here won't graduate.
DUDE YOU INVOKED RHEE??? SHE WAS AN IDIOT. PLAIN AND SIMPLE. SHE WAS A WASTE OF MONEY AND SET THIS SCHOOL SYSTEM BACK AT LEAST THREE TO FOUR YEARS.

GRANTED WASHCITYPAPER’S STORIES ARE RIFE WITH HYPERBOLE BECAUSE THAT’S PART OF THEIR SCHTICK HOWEVER YOU HAVE TO GET PAST THAT JUST LIKE YOU HAVE TO GET PAST THE ALL CAPS I PLUCK WITH. IM NOT HERE TO DEFEND MCKENNA BUT I GIVE THE BROTHER THE BENEFIT OF THE DOUBT BECAUSE HE SUBMIT GOOD STORIES ABOUT THE YOUTH IN THIS AREA.

YOU ARE MISSING THE LARGER POINT. PROBLEM TIME IS OVER! WE HAVE NO MORE TIME AND ENERGY FOR PROBLEMS. WE SHOULD NOT HAVE ANY I MEAN ANY PROBLEMS REGARDING STUDENTS THAT ARE NOT ELIGIBLE FOR DCPS ATHLETICS BECAUSE THAT ROAD IS OLD AND FULL OF POTHOLES. STYLE!

BY PENNING THIS PIECE HE IS ATTEMPTING TO OFFER UP A SOLUTION BY GIVING COACH SAAH SOME PUB. ALL THE FOLK WHO HAVE BEEN OFFERED UP TO THIS POINT HAVE BEEN FAILURES. WHY??? THEY DON’T HAVE A CLUE ABOUT DCPS ATHLETICS, ITS FAILURES, ITS SUCCESSES AND ITS IDIOSYNCRASIES. COACH SAAH UNDERSTANDS ALL THE INS, OUTS AND WORKAROUNDS THAT I’M SURE HE WOULD PUT A STOP TO.

SLIM ALL THAT SHIT YOU MENTIONED ABOUT WHAT SHOULD BE DONE FIRST TO FIX DCPS HAVE EVERYTHING TO DO WITH DCPS ATHLETICS. LETS TAKE A LOOK AT THEM SHALL WE:

TRUANCY-MUST ATTEND SCHOOL AND CLASS TO PLAY AND WILL ATTEND SCHOOL AND CLASS TO PLAY IF IT’S TO PROVIDE AT THE VERY LEAST A WAY OUT.

IF TOUGH GUYS KNOW YOU ARE PLAYING SPORTS THEY WILL MORE THAN LIKELY STEER YOU AWAY FROM THE STREETS TO KEEP YOU ELIGIBLE TO HELP YOU MAKE IT. I HAVE FIRST HAND KNOWLEDGE OF THIS.

ATHLETES FROM W.D.C. DO NOT GET SCHOLARSHIPS JUST BECAUSE THEY ARE GOOD ENOUGH AND THE NCAA GRAD RATE OF STUDENT ATHLETES IS HORRENDOUS BECAUSE OF REVENUE GENERATING SPORTS USING THEM AS CHATTEL NOT FOR ANYTHING ELSE. COACH THOMPSON GRADUATED PLAYERS CAUSE HE STAYED ON THEIR ASS.

ONE PERSON CAN MAKE A CHANGE IF THAT ONE PERSON PROVIDES THE LEADERSHIP NEEDED!
Could someone (Dave McKenna or hey, here's a novel idea -- DCPS), find out WHY Troy Mathieu and Marcus Ellis were so unsuccessful in this position. Troy Mathieu cited that he "wasn’t prepared for the administrative dysfunction he experienced in his brief run here." What does that mean? Let's fix that dysfunction, so the next person in the position will be successful. Marcus Ellis was "out of his league, and was often overwhelmed by eligibility issues?" I guess so. He had never been a high school AD or even worked for DCPS. (And I won't go into the rumors surrounding his selection for the job.)

If DCPS REALLY cares, they will FIX THE SYSTEM.... BEFORE the job is filled again. They need to prove they want the next AD to have the means to help student/athletes become successful on the field and off. FIX IT.

I wonder why the former athletic directors left. I just hope, they all get to wrap things up and make a move to benefit the majority. Thank you for sharing this post.
Eddie Saah does not have a shot. If you look at the people DCPS hires, you know that Saah is inelgible. To put it bluntly, he is too old, and he has too much experience. DCPS would prefer a recent college graduate whose only sports experience is playing Little League.
WHY would Eddie Saah want this thankless job? DCPS doesn't deserve to have his talents back.
Troy Mathieu worked his tail off for DCPS. He brought to DC a wealth of experience from his days in Dallas and as the AD at Grambling State. I was a DCPS coach and he would take my calls at all hours of day and night in order to try to make things work. He was rewarded for his efforts with a cold shoulder from the Chancellor's office -- he couldn't even get an in-person meeting with anyone but junior staff -- and a dearth of resources and support staff. Indeed, he was still forced to create schedules for all sports by pen and paper.

Considering no one wanted the job after he left, you can imagine what kind of quality was left in the applicant pool. DCPS had a chance to make its sports programs legitimate and thereby keep kids interested in school and on the path to college. Instead, the system is a shambles. There isn't even a website for the program with team schedules. Kids don't even get "all-DCIAA" honors.

They should get folks like the people at Friendship Collegiate involved to fix this mess. The kids are the ones injured by the adults' egos and ineptitude.

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