Robert K. Cato

Letters, texts and phone calls. Promises of championships. Offers of big-money scholarships. Another day in the college sports recruiting wars? No, it’s what local kids as young as 10 are being deluged with—from some of Philadelphia’s most elite private high schools

The money can come from a variety of sources. Penn Charter offers a worthy Little Quakers applicant the full-tuition Fox Scholarship, which goes only to football players and is endowed by a family whose Philly roots date back to William Penn’s time. Germantown Academy has specific athletic funds that help bring athletes to campus, too. Friends schools can offer more than the determined need figures, and at ANC, which has a huge endowment courtesy of the Pitcairn and Asplundh families, every student, regardless of financial standing, receives benefits from that pool. Though all the schools insist the money distributed is based entirely on need, well-off prospects do indeed receive scholarship offers based on athletic talent alone.

Even with the aid and what parents actually can pay, there are sometimes shortfalls. For particularly valued athletes, other avenues exist — including tuition being paid by alumni, other parents or even a coach’s acquaintances.

“I call [the benefactors] ‘godfathers,’” longtime Prep athletic director Jim Murray says. “I have no problem with godfathers. It doesn’t matter whether Aunt Sally, Uncle Henry or Joe Nice Guy is paying a guy’s tuition. It’s being paid.”

IN MID-FEBRUARY, Friends Central and ANC met at Haverford College to decide the league title before a raucous crowd. As the athletes — almost all of whom are African-Americans from the city — played a highly entertaining game, their fellow students — almost entirely white — cheered them on. It was an interesting juxtaposition.

But was it wrong? Not unless you consider giving kids the chance to escape treacherous neighborhoods and rotten Philadelphia high schools a bad thing. While the schools benefit from their teams’ exploits, the players get an opportunity to experience a world they never would have without their talent. “If you get a child who has the ability to do the work and can keep him in this environment 24/7, he’ll be stimulated there and will be successful,” LaMont Peterson says.

That said, not all schools’ motives are pure or their methods aboveboard. While Inter-Ac and Friends Schools League institutions, which are not part of the PIAA, are free to recruit students from wherever they wish, schools that are part of the PIAA — including those in the Catholic League — operate under strict restrictions. Under the guidelines, member schools may only contact students at “feeder” grade schools — those that provide 25 percent or more of the respective high school’s enrollment. But with increased competition for players, some Catholic school coaches have begun going beyond their traditional feeder schools (parish grade schools) and targeting students at nearby public middle schools — a direct violation of the rules.

“The only person who can contact [a public-middle-school student] is a representative from the [public] high school in his school district,” says PIAA board president Rod Stone, the principal at Central Bucks South High School.

So, as Catholic League schools were e-mailing and calling Paul, the young football star from Montgomery County, they were violating PIAA rules.

As you might imagine, the public schools aren’t too happy about having their best players poached. Ray Gionta coached football at St. John Neumann (long before it merged with St. Maria Goretti), and he knows the Catholic League. For the past eight years, he has been head coach at Marple-Newtown and has had to defend his district’s turf against several parochial and independent schools. “Losing one or two kids a year from our district will hurt our program,” Gionta says. “I’m trying to protect our kids from being stolen.”