Prose and Kohn: Ryan Kohn
The high school football scene received a jolt Aug. 8 when the Florida High School Athletic Association ruled Braden River High gave “impermissible benefits” to two football players, current senior Knowledge McDaniel and Deshaun Fenwick, now a freshman at the University of South Carolina.
The two situations, based on the FHSAA’s report, are similar. The athlete’s guardian could (or would) no longer take care of them, and caring families took them into their homes. The allegations stemmed from a letter containing multiple other allegations against the Pirates, most of which were proven false.
The bottom line is the school was hit with a combined $5,000 fine, administrative probation until the 2020-2021 season and forfeiture of all games from last season, along with the biggest blow: McDaniel is ineligible to compete in any FHSAA contests for 365 days. Braden River, with the support of the School District of Manatee County, is appealing the ruling.
Call the punishment callous.
I know the rule. It’s in the release the FHSAA sent, pointed to many times. As policy 126.96.36.199 states, it is against the rules for an athlete to be “living on a full- or part-time basis, regardless of whether rent is paid, with any school employee, athletic department staff member, (or) representative of the school’s athletic interests.” By the letter of the law, the situations of McDaniel and Fenwick were violations, but by human compassion, they shouldn't be.
The intent of the policy, according to Manatee County Director of Athletics Jason Montgomery, is to prevent coaches and boosters from housing kids from other schools in an attempt to gain residency. Both McDaniel and Fenwick attended Braden River their entire high school careers, well before the issues cited in the allegations arose. In fact, the FHSAA said in its release that McDaniel, after moving and submitting a hardship form with an address zoned to Southeast High, received approval in January from the Office of Student Assignment to remain at Braden River through his senior year. Recruitment isn’t an issue in either case.
Braden River isn’t shirking responsibility either, Montgomery said. There should have been better communication between the school and the adults involved in both cases, Montgomery said, and everyone knows that. He said the school has been nothing but compliant and by-the-book since the investigation began. That’s why the school is accepting the combined $5,000 fine, the administrative probation and the forfeited games from last season.
The only thing the school is appealing is the ineligibility of McDaniel.
In case there’s any doubt about the motivations behind caring for these kids, the family that took in Fenwick has explained their side of the story. Even though the appeal is about McDaniel, it's not a stretch to imagine, based on the ruling and the similarities of the cases, that Fenwick would be ineligible, too, if he was still at Braden River.
John and Amy Goda took in Fenwick when his things were left on their front porch by Fenwick’s former guardian, as reported in the investigation. I wrote a story on the Godas’ relationship with Fenwick last November, thinking it was a heartwarming story of a family helping someone who had nowhere to turn. I still think that, and so does the family.
“We’re a Christian family,” John Goda said. “We are commanded to help those in need. When somebody is in great need, especially a kid, how do you say no? I’ve seen it first-hand. You can change a kid’s trajectory and his legacy. You can make generational change in their life simply by giving them a secure place surrounded by people who love them. Their value is in their identity. We’re commanded to help people become who they supposed to be.”
John Goda means it when he said he’s seen it first-hand. See, this isn’t the first time the family have taken in a kid in need. They did it previously with Elisabeth Fleming, a friend of John and Amy’s daughter, Mackenzie Goda. Fleming was also a Braden River student, and now attends Florida State University. When Fleming comes home during school breaks, she still stays with the Godas. For all intents and purposes, she’s a part of the family. No one from outside the family cared, or even noticed, because Fleming wasn’t an athlete, John Goda said.
“This is what we do as people,” Goda said. “It was never about football.”
If the two athletes in question weren’t taken in by others, who knows what would have happened to them.
The earliest the appeal can occur is Sept. 6, so McDaniel will miss two games (at Trinity Christian Academy on Aug. 24, at Clearwater High on Aug. 31) no matter what. I hope that’s all he misses. It’s not right to suspend a kid because adults tried to give him the support and shelter he needed, that all kids need.
One more thing. On the day the Braden River sanctions were released, the FHSAA tweeted the following message from its account: “Being kind to others doesn't take any special magic. Help those who are struggling and see how much stronger your entire team becomes.”
If only the FHSAA would take its own advice. Instead, it chose to ignore special circumstances, and that’s a decision it will have to live with.