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‘It needs to stop’ | Parents accuse coach of improper player recruitment

<i>WANF</i><br/>Some Douglasville parents are alleging that Olten Downs
Some Douglasville parents are alleging that Olten Downs

By Rachel Polansky

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    DOUGLAS COUNTY, Georgia (WANF) — Any parent of an athlete knows how competitive high school sports can be and how upsetting it can be when your child doesn’t get playing time.

But parents at one metro Atlanta high school said their football program is recruiting and playing athletes who don’t even live in the district.

Some Douglasville parents are alleging that Olten Downs, head football coach at Alexander High School, is recruiting teens who don’t live in the district. One parent even admitted she is allowing a recruit to use her address, even though he does not live with her.

The Douglas County School System has confirmed an internal investigation was conducted. As a result, the district determined some conversations with prospective athletic parents had been “inappropriate” and said “appropriate corrective action” would be taken.

Recruiting allegations Kimberly Churchill’s son has been playing football in Douglasville since he was old enough to walk.

“He started off on the peewee football team, playing rec and then when he got to high school, he started playing on the JV level and varsity level,” Churchill said.

As he entered junior year at Alexander High School, Churchill’s son had dreams of being a starter. But as the season unfolded, his mom said he was replaced by kids he had never seen in school before.

“One kid is driving an hour to school and an hour from school each day,” Churchill said.

After Churchill’s son quit the team, she sent a complaint to the Georgia High School Association (GHSA), which oversees extracurricular activities for nearly 500 public and private schools in Georgia, alleging Downs was “recruiting out-of-district players for his football team.”

Churchill is not the only Douglasville parent making these claims.

Another mother who, fearing backlash, did not want to be identified because her son still plays for Alexander, admitted she is allowing Downs to use her address for one of his recruits, even though the recruit does not live with her.

Downs, the mother said, “called me on the phone. He said, ‘I have a student that lives in Atlanta, and he wants to come out here to have a better life for himself and to play football and I was wondering if you would be okay allowing this kid to use your address?’

“I said, that’s fine,” the mother recounted. She said she didn’t know at the time GHSA’s bylaws prohibited such an arrangement. “Even now, I don’t know if I’m gonna get in trouble,” she said. “I don’t know the ramifications.”

Downs did not respond to Atlanta News First Investigates’ emails. When asked directly about the allegations during halftime at Alexander High football game, Downs did not respond and ran off the field.

While Downs did not speak, another parent recorded a call between her and one of Downs’ assistant coaches. That call was shared with Atlanta News First Investigates.

During the call, the assistant coach asked if she’d provide her address for an incoming recruit to use.

“He needs to have the address; he can live with me. I have no problem with that but, if he has an address, he’ll be able to go to that school; he’ll be able to go to Alexander,” the coach said.

When the parent appeared to hesitate, the assistant coach added this: “I’m the type of person like you scratch my back, I scratch your back.” The mother who recorded the call took that to mean her son would be given more playing time.

“I don’t want any of the kids to get in trouble,” the mother said. “I just want it [recruiting] to stop happening.”

Recruiting or undue influence The GHSA defines recruiting or undue influence as “the use of influence by any person connected directly or indirectly with a GHSA school to induce a student of any age to transfer from one school to another … for athletic or literary competition purposes.”

GHSA also has the ability to impose penalties including fines, probations, suspensions or forfeiture of games. That’s what happened in 2020 when south Georgia’s longtime football powerhouse, Valdosta High School, was hit with $7500 in fines for recruiting violations. Five of their players were deemed ineligible, they were made to forfeit season wins, and banned from playoffs.

Atlanta News First Investigates uncovered GHSA investigated 93 claims of recruiting or undue influence over the last three years. Only 23 of them resulted in disciplinary action.

While accusations are common, GHSA Executive Director Robin Hines said his staff rarely has enough evidence to punish programs.

“You can’t really move forward if it’s not going to pass legal muster,” Hines said. “It’s a shame you have to look through that lens but if you can’t support it in court, then you probably don’t need to be moving forward.”

Atlanta News First Investigates also learned 13 employees make up GHSA’s office. Only one of them is responsible for investigating misconduct.

Nonetheless, Hines said his office is properly staffed. “Ninety-nine out of 100 times, it’s [complaints or allegations] usually by disgruntled members of the community that send those things. Some of them may turn out to be true but that’s few and far between.”

Hines also said when allegations are deemed credible, GHSA will send a “letter of inquiry” to the district and ask the school to conduct its own internal investigation.

When Atlanta News First Investigates asked if such an inquiry had been sent to Alexander High School, GHSA said it does “not comment on on going investigations.”

“I’ve complained,” Churchill said. “Other moms have complained. Again, nothing has been done.”

With one month left in the season, Churchill believes tactics like recruiting have taken the game out of athletes’ hands.

“It’s just a mess and it needs to stop,” Churchill said.

Local school system responds Atlanta News First Investigates has requested additional complaints regarding Downs since February 2021 from the Douglas County School System. The system said the public records would cost $3,360. We reduced the scope, and the price tag still remains more than $3,000. Atlanta News First is continuing to follow up on that public records request.

Meanwhile, Atlanta News First Investigates also requested an interview with Trent North, the Douglas County School System superintendent. System spokesperson Portia Lake sent this statement:

“As a district committed to ethical leadership, the Douglas County School System takes accusations against the Alexander High Football Program seriously. Our school district does not condone any type of athletic recruiting. All our athletic programs are a source of academic excellence, sportsmanship and community pride.

“Coach Olten Downs joined Alexander High School in 2021. He joined the Cougar Family with the expectation he would continue building on the school’s long-standing academic and athletic legacy. Since his arrival, he has added to the district’s commitment to excellence.

“We first became aware of allegations of illegal recruiting on August 30, 2022. Because of those disturbing allegations, we immediately launched an internal investigation. The investigation diligently reviewed all the circumstances and evidence surrounding the claims. Throughout the investigation, we received support and transparency from Coach Downs and current and prior football department employees.

“As a result of the investigation, the district determined some conversations with prospective athletic parents have been inappropriate. While Alexander coaches never actively recruited, some discussions did not follow Board protocols or policies. As a result, appropriate corrective action will be taken. Per district policy, any disciplinary actions will remain confidential.

“We expect all district educators to help students achieve at the highest level. In addition, we require Coach Downs and other district employees to operate fairly, transparently, and honestly. Every DCSS employee is aware of our district’s expectations. Furthermore, all administrators receive additional training on leading programs that align with our district’s mission.

“Looking ahead this season, Coach Downs and the Alexander Athletics program will continue operating with integrity and excellence as they equip student-athletes for post-high school success.”

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