Meade girls team gets fouled in game of life


March 03, 1996|By Elise Armacost

LIFE SOMETIMES is not fair. The scales of justice don't always balance. The penance doesn't always fit the crime. People suffer for things they didn't do. Sooner or later, everyone has to learn these lessons. But there's no good reason why 14 honest, hard-working young ladies on the Meade High girls' basketball team should have to be learning them now.

The Meade Mustangs, sporting a 15-7 record, were supposed to have played in the Anne Arundel County basketball championships at Old Mill last week. This would have been the first shot at a girls' basketball championship in school history. For the seniors, this was their last chance for a season worth remembering.

"I've played two other sports here," soccer and lacrosse, said co-captain Mary Rafter, "and this is my first winning season for all three sports." Now it's gone, all because of an honest mistake that the girls and their coach had the decency to report.

Here's what happened: A few weeks ago, Coach Phil Popielski discovered that he had goofed in reviewing eligibility forms to make sure his players lived within the Meade district. Such mistakes are not difficult to make, given the convergence of Meade, Old Mill and Arundel school district boundaries and the transience of students in the Meade area, which encompasses the nearby military base by the same name.

When reviewing junior reserve Chante Cheeks' form, Mr. Popielski recognized the name of her street as one within the Meade area, but didn't notice that her town was listed as "Glen Burnie." Had that been spotted earlier, she could have applied to the school system for a waiver to remain at Meade, a not-uncommon practice in the county. As it was, she was ineligible. Mr. Popielski promptly notified Anne Arundel school athletic authorities, expecting them to censure him and discipline Chante in some way. Instead, a five-member board of arbitration stripped the Mustangs of 11 wins, rendering them ineligible to contend for the championship.

Now Mr. Popielski and Meade parents are appealing to the Maryland Public Secondary Schools Association to restore the wins, as well as imploring the school board and Superintendent Carol S. Parham to take their side. At least if they get their 11 games back, the record book will show how good this team was.

But most of the damage done by this absurdly harsh ruling is irreversible. The county championship is over. Worse than that, 14 girls are confused and disillusioned about what constitutes fairness in an adult world they soon will join.

"I just can't believe that any board would do this to us," said all-county center Shalisa Johnson, reviewing the month's unfortunate events with some of her teammates on the Meade gym bleachers last week.

Forward Tanya Green says she has lost her desire to play, "and everybody knows how much I love to play basketball.

"I understand the rules and everything. I could understand it if we deliberately broke the rules. But nobody knew."

Doesn't it matter, she asked, that Chante's mother didn't know she needed to report a change of address to the Board of Education? Or that teammates often dropped Chante off at the base after games and practices and assumed she lived there still?

Doesn't it matter that Chante only played 28 minutes all season, meaning that her presence on the team didn't affect the outcome of those 11 games? Is it right that a whole team should suffer because one or two people inadvertently erred? Shouldn't it count that the coach came forward as soon as he realized he had made a mistake?

Mary Rafter returns from the locker room with a letter she wrote to Dr. Parham. "I was always taught that honesty is the best policy and that if you do the right thing everything will work out for the best," it says. "[Now] I have found out this is not always the case."

These are nice young women. They don't blame their teammate, nor are they ranting aimlessly at the powers that be. But they are smart enough to know they have been handed a dirty deal and are trying to understand why.

Because it's Meade?

A few, like Lakita Stewart, can't help imagining the worst: that the adults who decide these things came down hard on Meade because it is Meade. This is a school where cafeteria scuffles are twisted into riots on the nightly news; its reputation is worse than it deserves. Meade students live with that week in, week out. The girls say athletes and parents at other schools always act surprised to see that they really have talent -- "as if," Tanya says, "they don't expect too much from us."

You start to reassure them that the Board of Arbitration surely isn't that unfair when they point out that an almost identical situation occurred at Severna Park High years ago. The board ruled that the coach did the right thing by turning the team in, allowing them to compete in the playoffs.

What can you tell them, except that in the real world sometimes a clean conscience and knowledge of a job well done are the only reward one can expect?

Elise Armacost is The Sun's editorial writer in Anne Arundel County.

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