In the end, they shook hands and wished one another well.
After a two-hour hearing near Harrisburg on Tuesday, a five-member Pennsylvania Interscholastic Athletic Association (PIAA) appeals panel voted unanimously to let Dawayne Young play football for the Martin Luther King High Cougars this upcoming season.
Upon hearing the decision, an emotional Young lowered his head into his hands moments before his former coach and principal at George Washington High approached to congratulate him.
“It feels really good,” the overwhelmed 17-year-old said.
“Now you can start sleeping well again,” said his mother, Annette Thomas, who testified on her son’s behalf along with MLK Principal William Wade, Athletic Director Duane Ramer and teacher George Kocotis.
Young’s relief came after an at-times contentious hearing in which the PIAA also commissioned an investigation into allegations that a “volunteer community” coach recruited players for a team basking in the glow of being the subject of a documentary that aired on ESPN and ABC last season.
The hearing itself
The appeal session was called after a PIAA District XII committee declared in May that Young was ineligible to play football at King after transferring from Washington.
Also on hand was District XII chairman Robert Coleman, vice chair (and former head coach at Germantown High) Michael Hawkins and Darnell Deans from the Philadelphia School District’s Office of Student Enrollment and Placement along with Washington’s head football coach Ron Cohen and Athletic Director Ken Geiser.
“Why, after a 15-0 vote, do we come here?” said MLK’s Ramer, alluding to the initial Philadelphia hearing. “Because our principal wasn’t there, and our player wasn’t there. They didn’t get a chance to tell our side of the story.”
Officials at Washington argued that Young was transferring for football-related reasons, and that he’d been recruited to do so by volunteer coach Kelly Cottle.
Washington Principal Gene Jones said Young personally told him as much. The player denied that, though.
“I never told [Jones] I was transferring for football,” he said, “and I didn’t even know Kelly until I got to King.”
When asked about the recruiting allegations on the phone as the panel deliberated, Cottle said, “No, I didn’t” recruit Young.
However, Jones maintained that Young wasn’t the only player who mentioned MLK entreaties to him, and Cohen derisively referred to Cottle as, among other things, a “hanger on-er.”
That discussion left Wade, Coleman and Hawkins trading accusatory barbs at the table; for a few minutes, the hearing centered on longstanding disputes rather than a teenaged football player’s future.
On Tuesday, as he did in a July story on NewsWorks, Young cited commuting times, a dearth of academic support and his mother’s desire to have her oldest son attend school near his younger brother and sister, who go to the nearby West Oak Lane Charter School, as reasons for the shift.
Choices made, accusations slung
Panel members inquired about the perceived athletic benefit that Young would get by transferring away from “one of the city’s most successful programs” helmed by a Hall of Fame coach who has won 12 Public League titles (compared with MLK’s one) and helped four former players get to the NFL.
Coleman noted that he and PIAA Executive Director Robert Lombardi have been paying particular attention to a “schools reloading” trend, in which athletes come to high schools to fill in athletic roles filled by players who graduated. That issue was never directly linked to Young’s transfer during the hearing, though.
“If he had the choice, he would have stayed at Washington,” said Young’s mother, Annette. “But he didn’t have the choice.”
Added Ramer, “Yeah, we’re on an upswing, but we’re no Washington.”
The lone advantage mentioned was boosting Young’s GPA from the 1.5 (when he left Washington) to the 2.5 required for Division I college eligibility.
“I wouldn’t support anybody who wanted to transfer here just for football,” said Wade, noting that he discussed the allegations with Cottle when Jones mentioned them to him months ago. “I won’t tolerate [recruiting].”
“If I thought [Cottle] did that, he wouldn’t be here. I spoke with my coaches about it and didn’t mince words.”
Conclusions and decisions
While Jones “took exception” to Young’s denials, he said that “I don’t want [this issue] to hurt a child. We do the right things for kids. … I don’t want this young man to be railroaded by adults who got overzealous.”
For his part, Wade said that “if the system is flawed, we have to fix it. But we won’t fix it on the back of Dawayne Young.”
After deliberating for a half hour, panel chair James T. Zack announced the 5-0 vote to reverse Young’s one-year ineligibility.
“We have serious concerns about what’s going on at MLK,” he added, noting that the school must investigate the recruiting issue and provide a report to the PIAA by Sept. 1.
Zack closed the meeting by wishing Young good luck with his academics moving forward.
From there, Cohen and Jones walked over to shake their former player/student’s hand.
Their pleasant exchange did not belie any trace of several stressful months leading up to it.
The back story
As a rising senior, ineligibility would have ostensibly rendered Young unable to play games during a season in which college recruiters would decide whether to offer him a scholarship like the ones that Temple and Delaware State universities already extended.
Young’s first game as an MLK Cougar is Aug. 29 against the Coatesville High Red Raiders.
He’ll face the Washington Eagles on Friday, Oct. 24.