Clarity, but still questions on LA football sanctions

This morning, a school-wide assembly was held on the Lawrence Academy campus, in the school's Richardson-Mees Performing Arts Center, to discuss the recent sanctions levied against the football program by the Independent School League. Most notably, the Spartans have been stripped of their 2009 and 2010 ISL championships, and are banned from postseason play for three years.

What they were charged with was not made clear at the time of the ISL's decision, but it is generally believed to stem from the fourth item outlined in the sanctions, which reads: "To require Lawrence Academy to affirm in writing to the Presidents of the ISLC and ISLC Steering Committee by May 1, 2011, that for the upcoming school year, all of its varsity student-athletes who receive financial support from the school will do so using a needs-based analysis and not a merit-based scholarship."

This afternoon, the school put out a release about the assembly. Below is an excerpt:

On Friday, April 22, students, faculty, and staff gathered for the weekly assembly in RMPAC and although general announcements were made about school happenings and upcoming events, the gist of the meeting was dedicated to addressing issues surrounding the sanctions against LA that were handed down by the ISL earlier in the week.

Head of School Wiggins addressed the assembly and spoke at length about sanctions and how various decisions were made.

He said, “I believe the decision by the ISL was cumulative in nature, taking into account several areas of concern.” He went on to explain that in the ISL statement where the sanctions are articulated, it was clear that issues surrounding need-based financial aid practices and off-season activity were points of consideration.

In regards to need-based financial aid, Wiggins said that over the last several years, there have been several instances where students in attendance at LA were funded beyond their demonstrated need, in violation of ISL Bylaws, which prohibit any form of scholarship that is not need-based.

He also spoke of off-season athletic activity, explaining that over the past year or so, summer training sessions took place in violation of ISL off-season training rules agreed upon by the league.

“I want to be clear,” said Wiggins, “that the actions in question here were the actions of adults and in no way are the student athletes at LA responsible for the outcomes voted by the league.” He also made clear that LA is already working to address the issues that were of concern to the league.

After the assembly, student body president Emily Field invited all who were interested in staying to remain in their seats in what was planned to be a silent protest.

The meeting, however, quickly evolved into a very productive dialogue that included unscripted, heartfelt, brief remarks by faculty, staff, and students alike. Some students respectfully raised their hands to ask questions of the administration and Mr. Wiggins fielded the majority of those inquires.

The sanction this week adds another chapter to the soap opera that has defined Lawrence Academy football, which may have started in earnest last October when Rhode Island-based prep school St. George's forfeited its game with the Spartans, citing safety concerns. The forfeit made national headlines; matters were only made worse when rumors circulated that the Spartans had been told by their administration to keep the margin of victory under 35 points.

LA went on to capture its second straight ISL football title, crushing BB&N 36-7, before losing to Salisbury (Conn.) in a NEPSAC Bowl game. This past Feb. 3, seven LA players signed National Letters of Intent in downtown Boston; two days later, head coach Mike Taylor stepped down from the program.

Some of the football players were not present at the assembly, while others came away from the meeting with more questions than answers.

"I know Coach Taylor better than anyone, and he would never put us in a situation to have a championship taken away," said senior Marcus Grant, who will play wide receiver at the University of Iowa next fall.

Grant, like several others, was confused by the gray area of needs-based versus merit-based financial aid. When an ISL school goes over the budget allotted for needs-based scholarships, that school will often reach out to alumni, parents and the like for donations.

"It's not like he's giving kids money illegally," Grant said of Taylor. "He donates to all sports. He doesn't even know who the kids are when he makes the donation, other than just they're kids who needed financial aid. It wasn't like he was saying, 'This is my recruit, here's my donation'. It was aid used to help kids."

As for the illegal practices, Grant said, "All we did is have captain's practices".

Reached by phone last night, Nevada-bound senior running back Tony Knight -- who was among several football players who did not attend the assembly today -- was upset and disappointed with the punishment levied against a man he considered "an equal just as much as my father".

Knight's perception of Taylor was shared by several other members of the team, in that both his humility and dogged loyalty to them created a tight, mutual bond.

"I could call Coach Taylor at 5 a.m., and the worst possible thing in world could happen, and he'd get me out of it," Knight said. "If I needed ride at 5 in the morning, wherever I was, if someone threw me out of the car or something, Coach Taylor would come bring clothes and pick me up."