Basketball by the Book: A Riverfront Times Investigation

The Vashon High School Wolverines have won five state titles in the past eight years. But did they play by the rules?

Not long before Clayton High School's football team was to advance to the Missouri state championship playoffs in November 2003, a scandal broke out: The athletic director from a rival school called his counterpart at Clayton to challenge the eligibility of Jairus Byrd, a junior who'd played two years of high school ball in Wisconsin and was now living with his parents in an Earth City hotel while paying tuition to attend Clayton.

That's a violation of Missouri State High School Activities Association (MSHSAA) bylaws. Specifically bylaw "238.0, Residence and Transfer Requirements," which makes no exceptions for tuition-paying students.

Almost as quickly as you can say "ineligible," the Greyhounds' 9-0 record became 0-9 in accordance with MSHSAA bylaw 830.0, which states: "Games in which an ineligible player plays shall be forfeited." Clayton would have to wait till the next year to vie for the state crown.

Vashon High School's new, $40 million campus opened 
at the start of the 2002-'03 academic year. The gym 
floor bears the name "Irons' Court," in honor of its 
longtime coach.
Jennifer Silverberg
Vashon High School's new, $40 million campus opened at the start of the 2002-'03 academic year. The gym floor bears the name "Irons' Court," in honor of its longtime coach.
Floyd Irons, whose 31-year reign as Vashon's head 
basketball coach ended abruptly this past summer, says he 
knows nothing about whether his former players' living 
arrangements violated state bylaws for athletic eligibility.
Jennifer Silverberg
Floyd Irons, whose 31-year reign as Vashon's head basketball coach ended abruptly this past summer, says he knows nothing about whether his former players' living arrangements violated state bylaws for athletic eligibility.

Byrd, who these days plays defensive back for the Pac-10 Conference's University of Oregon Ducks, is the son of ex-San Diego Chargers all-pro defensive back Gill Byrd, who'd come to St. Louis to take a job as an assistant coach for the St. Louis Rams. The Greyhounds' six-foot, 205-pound star quarterback completed 24 of 48 passes for 444 yards, rushed for 776 yards on 132 carries and scored 15 touchdowns in the fall of 2003. (Byrd also played defense, making 37 tackles and 5 interceptions.)

Ultimately MSHSAA determined that Byrd's violation was the result of an oversight by Clayton administrators. He was cleared to play for the Greyhounds in 2004 and proceeded to lead the team to a 13-1 record and the Class 4 state title.

During the same school year in which Clayton's 9-0 was reversed, another local high school squad won a Class 4 state basketball title while fielding a roster that included not one but seven players who ran afoul of MSHSAA's bylaws. Three of the seven lived within the school's mandated attendance area while their parents lived elsewhere. The other four, like Jairus Byrd, lived outside the school's boundaries; two of the four supplied false addresses in official records.

The school: The St. Louis Public High League's Vashon Wolverines.

But unlike the Greyhounds, the Wolverines weren't ordered by MSHSAA to forfeit a single game.

What's more, far from being isolated infringements, the Vashon violations of 2003-'04 appear to characterize Wolverines basketball's compliance with MSHSAA regulations for the past eight years.

During that time, under coach (and Public High League athletic director) Floyd Irons, Vashon was a perennial hoops powerhouse, ranked by USA Today as one of the top teams in the nation.

Though Irons' players were often rumored to have flouted local and state residency requirements, the matter wasn't internally investigated by officials within the St. Louis Public Schools. Nor did MSHSAA weigh in much. Only twice since 2001 has the agency ordered sanctions against Vashon basketball players; neither case appears to have resulted in any game forfeitures.

Yet a three-month Riverfront Times investigation has revealed that Vashon apparently fielded teams with at least three ineligible players — and sometimes as many as ten — each and every season dating back to the 1998-'99 school year.

Vashon won state championships in five of those years: 2000, 2001, 2002, 2004 and 2006.

In order to determine player eligibility, Riverfront Times analyzed Wolverines rosters, MSHSAA files, public records and data obtained from the St. Louis Public Schools; interviewed state and school officials; and visited homes at the addresses that players reported to the school district as their "residences."

The paperís findings are encapsulated in a chart that is available as a downloadable pdf file.

The eligibility infractions come to light in the wake of several tumultuous months for Floyd Irons.

A 2004 Missouri Sports Hall of Fame inductee, Irons is himself a Vashon alum who racked up 802 wins and 10 of Vashon's 11 state titles in a 31-year coaching career that saw one Vashon player, Anthony Bonner, reach the NBA. The gymnasium at Vashon bears Irons' name — testament to a community icon who has been not only a coach but a father figure to many of his players, visiting them at home and helping out financially when the need arose.

On July 11 the St. Louis Board of Education removed Irons from his posts as Vashon coach and district athletic director, without citing a cause.

When the Wolverines open their basketball season November 30, they'll take the court without Floyd Irons for the first time since 1974. Last month Anthony Bonner, who played for the NBA's Sacramento Kings, New York Knicks and Orlando Magic after attending Vashon and Saint Louis University, was named Irons' successor at Vashon.

Irons' demotion spurred pickets outside school-board meetings and at the home of board president Veronica O'Brien. Irons was also one of several plaintiffs in a lawsuit that unsuccessfully sought to remove school board member Bill Purdy from office. In late September Irons and Demetrious Johnson, a longtime Irons confidant and a former NFL defensive lineman, filed suit in St. Louis City Circuit Court, alleging that O'Brien defamed their character and falsely claimed they harassed her.

Irons himself narrowly dodged becoming a defendant in a lawsuit this past summer. According to an August 9 report in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, the Missouri Department of Social Services had determined that Irons assaulted a Vashon student named Timothy Bacon in February 2000 and urged the state to file criminal charges. But in 2002 a St. Louis County Circuit Court judge "found insufficient probable cause of abuse or neglect," according to the Post story, and Irons was not charged. In the wake of the news reports, St. Louis attorney Anthony Bruning drafted a civil complaint against Irons on behalf of Bacon. But on August 18, days before Bruning was to file the suit in St. Louis City Circuit Court, Bacon was shot to death on a north St. Louis street.

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