The IHSA Board of Directors voted unanimously Monday evening that Mooseheart's three South Sudanese boys basketball players will remain eligible but the program has been placed on probation, pending "review and refinement" of its admissions process and other mandatory training.
In its official statement following the decision, which took place after a lengthy afternoon hearing at IHSA headquarters in Bloomington, the IHSA asserted that an investigation by associate executive director Kurt Gibson was "complete and appropriate," but that the South Sudanese transfers had been "taken advantage of by [African-Hoop Opportunities Providing an Education] and people related to that organization."
Mooseheart had initially been told that juniors Akim Nyang, Makur Puou and Mangisto Deng fulfilled their IHSA transfer requirements by sitting out last season after being referred to the school by A-HOPE. The game-changing trio – Nyang stands 7-foot-1 tall, Puou is 6-10 and Deng is 6-7 – played in the Red Ramblers' first four games this season before trouble hit.
IHSA executive director Marty Hickman informed Mooseheart on Nov. 29 that the organization was stripping the players of their eligibility because of inappropriate recruiting on Mooseheart's part, but Kane County Judge David Akemann ruled last week that the players be allowed to continue competing until the IHSA's Board of Directors met to hear the school's appeal on Monday.
Dan Klett, president of the IHSA's 10-member Board of Directors and principal at Wauconda High School, said hearing from the students first-hand at Monday's meeting was "by far the biggest piece" in the board's deliberations.
"It was fairly clear from our standpoint that the students weren't really aware of everything that was going on," Klett said. "They were just looking for an opportunity to get to the United States to get an education so ultimately they can go back and take that education and help their own country. We just feel A-HOPE's intent is a lot more about basketball, as their name implies. ... They're not helping every kid. They're not helping kids who are 5-2. They're not helping young ladies."
Nyang, Deng and Puou played in three additional games last week after the judge's temporary restraining order, including Wednesday's 58-51 loss to Hinckley-Big Rock. Hinckley-Big Rock had reached out to the IHSA early this year to raise concerns about A-HOPE.
The IHSA declared that Mooseheart has been immediately placed on probation and is ineligible for the coming postseason pending the completion of refining its admissions plan, a training and education program for all Mooseheart coaches and administrators on IHSA bylaws and submission of a compliance plan. Hickman said Monday night that it is realistic that those steps could be completed in a matter of weeks, in time for the team to participate in the 2012-13 postseason.
Peter Rush, an attorney representing Mooseheart, credited the South Sudanese students for helping their own cause on Monday.
"It was riveting in there to watch the student-athletes tell their story, to tell their own life, and to share it in a language which was not their first tongue, in front of a group of strangers," Rush said. "Poise would be an understatement. Courage would be an understatement. Leadership would be a fair statement. They were absolutely extraordinary."
The eligibility controversy drew widespead media attention as Mooseheart adamantly pushed back against the notion that the residential school for students from disadvantaged backgrounds would bring students to campus with sports in mind. Mooseheart executive director Scott Hart said last week that the school has between 20 and 30 foreign-born students on campus and is open to international students regardless of athletic prowess.
Klett acknowledged that the players' background from a deeply troubled part of the world fits with Mooseheart's overall mission but said there should be more oversight on the school's part with the agencies from which they accept students.
"In this particular case, it's pretty clear if you look at the A-HOPE website, they're about basketball players, not necessarily about helping Sudanese youths," Klett said.
Mooseheart, which has only 118 students enrolled in the high school grades, has carried a low athletic profile over the years, and competes in the smallest class in the IHSA postseason, making the Ramblers' new-look, towering roster quite the novelty.
The school had cried foul about the seemingly odd timing of ruling the players ineligible so long after their 2011 arrival, and after the current season started. Hickman said the IHSA did not initially know about A-HOPE when it signed off on the players' eligibility.
"It just took some time," Hickman said. "I'd acknowledge it took a little longer than I would have liked, but there were a lot of contributing factors to that."
A-HOPE's website describes the organization as a non-profit that provides "deserving student-athletes a seamless process of obtaining a student visa, transportation to the United States" and access to "an outstanding education. The IHSA announced that, in the future, any school accepting referrals of students from A-HOPE or any other organization with a purpose of placing student-athletes in educational settings will be "presumptively ineligible."
Monday's ruling also applied to a fourth South Sudanese transfer student, Wal Khat, a Mooseheart cross country runner who won a state medal in the fall.