Why is John Curtis High being punished for helping LSU OL Willie Allen?
Last Wednesday evening, I got an email from a man named Jerry Godfrey. I met him last winter when I was writing a story about Willie Allen, a top recruit in the state of Louisiana who eventually committed to play offensive line at LSU. Godfrey was Allen's offensive line coach at John Curtis Christian School in River Ridge, Louisiana—and he and his wife, Lindsi, also serve as a sort of surrogate family for Allen.
Allen was one of the most mature, interesting and kind high school students I've ever spoken with, so when I got Godfrey's email, I was confused. "I wanted to speak to you about an issue with Willie," it read. There was no way he was in trouble, I thought. It had to be something else.
On Wednesday, the Louisiana State High School Athletic Association ruled in a hearing that what Godfrey did, taking Allen in when his commute to school began taking as long as two hours, constituted recruiting. It forced the school to vacate 20 wins. When Godfrey and I talked later Wednesday, he was irate. This wasn't about the wins, he told me. It was about basic human decency—and the hundreds of other Willie Allens whom the ruling fails.
Here's the background: Allen enrolled at Curtis as an eighth-grader, with the help of an uncle who lived nearby and knew it would be a step up from New Orleans public schools. Allen had spent much of his childhood in New Orleans' worst neighborhoods, and his uncle offered him a place to stay near Curtis—about 10 miles west of the city—as well as rides to school.
For nearly two years, that setup worked. But after Allen's freshman year, his uncle was no longer able to provide for him, and he moved back in with his mother and three siblings in a tiny one-bedroom apartment in New Orleans. He was left to his own devices to get to Curtis, and he ended up walking a mile at 5 a.m. to the St. Charles Ave. streetcar. He'd take the streetcar to a bus to the school's front gates. As a result, he was chronically late, and Godfrey noticed. During camp before Allen's sophomore year, he offered the teenager a place to stay for a few nights—and the situation turned permanent. Allen became the Godfreys' third child.
At no point did anyone at Curtis make any move to hide Allen's living arrangement, agreeing to stories with ESPN, Sports Illustrated and local newspapers about Allen and the Godfreys' relationship. He'd already attended the school for two years, so the concept of recruiting occurred to no one.
But in Louisiana—as in many other states—there's long been tension between public and private schools over recruiting. Curtis is the best football program in the state, an easy target, and it's impossible to say if or how often the school has recruited players. According to the LHSAA handbook, what Godfrey did could be construed as recruiting, which it defines as using undue influence "to encourage, induce, pressure, urge or entice a prospective student of any age to transfer to or retain a student at a school for the purpose of participating in interscholastic athletics."
It all comes down to the word "retain." Was Allen planning to drop out of Curtis if Godfrey didn't offer his home? (According to the handbook, providing rides for students is also illegal.) It's impossible to say. At that moment, he wasn't. He just accepted an offer that would make his life easier. In the future, maybe the commute would have gotten to be too much. It's pure speculation, but the LHSAA decided that yes, Godfrey had been the key to Curtis retaining Allen.
When all is said and done, Allen's life changes not at all after the ruling. He's redshirting at LSU after a knee injury, and the Godfreys remain his second parents. After the hearing, though, he was visibly upset and felt responsible for the negative publicity and consequences his school faced. "Y'all can take the wins away," he tweeted Wednesday, "but The relationships I've built over the years will last forever #curtisnation #family #love."
This whole business is so shortsighted and heartbreaking. In the eyes of the LHSAA, there is no gray area. (In perusing other states' high school athletic associations' handbooks, this is not uncommon. In many, there are rules prohibiting recruiting to "retain" students. In some, though, there's no language that would apply to retention or a situation like Allen's, and in others', there's a clear notation that recruiting questions should be treated on a case-by-case basis.)
There is no consideration for the fact that what Godfrey did was the right thing. Of course he wanted Allen to make his football practices on time. Of course he saw a 6' 6" 15-year-old. But he also saw a kid who'd gotten an opportunity for a future. Had he re-enrolled in New Orleans public schools, the odds of him going to college have been far slimmer. (The city's school system has improved dramatically since Hurricane Katrina, but still, just 59 percent of 2015 graduates attended college, and nearly 25 percent of students in each class fail to graduate high school on time.) That's not to say Allen wouldn't have succeeded on his own away from Curtis, but in a city with a 27.7% poverty rate and among the nation's highest murder rates (there were 164 in 2015), the odds are stacked against even kids like him, who are bright, motivated and talented.
There will be hundreds more Willie Allens in Louisiana and in the other 49 states, and there needs to be some way to help them, some kind of waiver program that finds the gray area. With this ruling, coaches and schools are de-incentivized to help kids like Allen; even facilitating housing or help from another family at the school would, by the letter of the law, constitute recruiting. That needs to change—and LHSAA executive director Eddie Bonine told The Baton Rouge Advocate that schools have the right to propose changes to the recruiting rule. "I made the decision based on the rules," Bonine told The Advocate. "The principals made the rules, and I enforce the rules. That's what I'm charged to do."
I hope Bonine's words can be a springboard to change. There needs to be a system in place where, when another Jerry Godfrey finds another Willie Allen at his school, a kid clinging to the best opportunity he's ever gotten, he can appeal to the state with his case. Football, for all the criticism it deserves, also provides so many people a college education and a future they'd otherwise never see. But what about the kids who could use football as a springboard to a college degree—but who can't even get out of high school?
When Allen moved in with the Godfreys and later started gaining attention as a top recruit, Lindsi was clear with him: only 6.5% of high school players make it to college, and 1.5% of those turn pro. He would not be able to get a meaningless degree. No general studies. No sociology. Football, the Godfreys impressed upon Allen, might not take him any further than LSU. They didn't do what they did to groom him to be a high school star or to profit off of his future. They did it to give him a future, period.