This is the story of two schools.
The first school is a relatively new one. Founded in 1997, Grace Christian Academy is an outgrowth of its namesake church, and the 900 students enrolled in its K-12 program make it the largest Southern Baptist-affiliated school in the state. The school motto is “Lead, Build, Equip,” and Grace prides itself on instilling Christian values in its pupils.
The second is one of the oldest in the country. Montgomery Bell Academy opened its doors while Nashville was still sifting through the embers of Reconstruction. Its outstanding alumni have been doctors and lawyers, senators and power brokers, admirals and generals, all credits to the school’s credo of “Gentleman. Scholar. Athlete.” A diploma from MBA signifies a first-class education and is often a ticket into the finest colleges.
The two schools are separated by more than a century in age, and by piles of athletic accolades — MBA has been a state champion 14 times in football alone. Yet both have found themselves in a similar situation in recent years. Both schools have come under fire from the state’s athletic association, the Tennessee Secondary School Athletic Association, for breaking rules concerning financial aid to students.
When it comes to punishment, however, the schools are not so similar.
For Grace, it was the matter of a single student. In 2007, a boy’s parents were killed in an automobile accident. The tragedy set forth a chain of events that found him living with his grandmother and enrolled at the school. He played football and basketball, and excelled at both.
There were whispers from other schools, though, that his tuition wasn’t paid by his family — a violation of TSSAA rules. Technically, this was true. Grace Baptist had taken the boy and his grandmother under their care, using their benevolent fund to help cover the family’s bills (including the boy’s school fees) in the wake of the tragedy.
For MBA, the problems were systemic in nature. Even after receiving approved financial aid, various student athletes found themselves struggling to pay the school’s $20,000 tuition. As with Grace — and indeed, as with most private schools that have a tight-knit community of supporters — benefactors stepped in to help cover the bill.
And again, as with Grace, this was a violation of the rules. The TSSAA found that the “culture at MBA of helping families in need” stretched from individuals all the way to members of the board of trust as checks came in to cover tuition. It even extended to a financial office that simply never collected the tuition balance of student- athletes in their senior years.
Article II, Section 16 of TSSAA’s bylaws is explicit about the rules that govern both these cases: “If tuition is charged, it must be paid by parent, bona fide guardian or other family member. If a parent, guardian or other family member secures a loan for payment of tuition, it must remain an obligation of the parents, guardian or other family member to repay the principle and interest in full with no exceptions.”
The price for breaking the rules, though, was much steeper for one school.
MBA was forced to vacate wins from four years of football, two-and-a-half seasons of basketball and to return football playoff expenses. Apart from being fined $3,750 and placed on probation for two years, the school’s punishments are all in the past.
Grace, however, was banned from postseason play in all sports for a year and in football and basketball for a second year. In addition to repaying playoff expenses, it was fined $5,000 and placed on probation for three years.
The City Paper asked the TSSAA to clarify the contrast in the punishment between the schools, but Executive Director Bernard Childress declined.
According to Grace Christian principal Randy Down, the church’s act of charity did not bring the school any in return from the TSSAA.
“I was the interim athletic director at that time,” said Down, “The AD we had was no longer with us. I was high school principal and interim AD. And a pastor from our church went with us to that [TSSAA] meeting and he basically threw himself on the mercy of the court, so to speak. He said, ‘Listen, this is my mistake. The school had no knowledge I was doing it. I didn’t even know it was wrong.’
“I thought, because churches do benevolent acts all the time for people, we just found out you couldn’t do it for students who play a sport. There are other families that don’t have athletes that the church has helped out over the years. Maybe there’s been a house fire ... it happens all the time. We found out that you can’t do it if that student is playing a sport. It doesn’t matter what the reason is, you just can’t give them any money.”
Down insists that not only were the church’s motives pure, the school itself had no knowledge it was the recipient.
“The grandmother was paying regular bills,” Down said. “Some of the money originally went to pay — I guess members of the church had given money — for financial support for food and housing and clothing. Then when they got on their feet with this young man, it went solely for his tuition the last couple of years. And again, the school had no knowledge it was happening. I was the interim. I had the student in my building. I had no knowledge he was being funded by the church’s benevolent fund.”
Perhaps more ominously, Down said a TSSAA official told him that if they appealed their punishment to the state level, they might be punished even more severely.
“We did an initial appeal to the region, not the state board. They did reduce the amount of games [that fines were attached to]. The [total amount] was originally going to be as much as $24,000. And they basically cut it in half,” Downs said. “We were going to appeal it statewide, but we were given some information that it probably wasn’t going to go well if we did appeal at the state level.”
The way the process works, Down said, is that “[TSSAA executive director] Bernard Childress presides over the regional meeting, and he’s the one that makes the initial ruling. And the way the bylaws go, once we appeal to the state board of regions — there are nine regions — those nine regional commissioners meet and they decide separately apart from Bernard if more or less punishment should be meted out against Grace Christian.
“I received a phone call from one individual inside TSSAA, who I cannot identify, but I’ll tell you that it’s a very reliable source, that the ruling would not go well for us if we appealed to the state level. We’d probably get even more severe punishment, possibly even the maximum, which would be the death penalty where we would be suspended from participation in any sport. The first year probation was for all sports. Last year, none of our sports could go to the playoffs in any sport, basketball and football for two years.”
Grace, naively, never sought legal counsel during the punishment phase. Only after the TSSAA rendered penalties and the school began to appeal did it employ a lawyer. By contrast, MBA had counsel present throughout its own internal investigation, and later as it presented future compliance measures to the TSSAA.
The sanctions affected the school, Down said. And predictably, Grace Christian — a private school — has been accused by its public counterparts of cheating.
“It hurt us, because the people in our district did not have to play us in basketball,” Down said. “So some schools who really hate us — only because we’re a private school or a Christian school, take your pick — they have chosen that, because we’re on probation, they don’t have to play us and they’re not gonna play us. So we’ve had to do some tricky scheduling to get 25 or 30 games in our basketball schedule this season.
“It’s sadly humorous, I guess, that people have been wanting to see a private school or a Christian school like ours suffer as much as possible because they feel like we openly recruit, that we hide it somehow and that’s how we win, because we recruit athletes. It’s kind of sad.”
Somewhat resigned to fate, Down added, “We’re not here to make trouble. We have plenty of information about other schools that we were told probably did worse than what we did, that got away with more and suffered less. And while we don’t live in a perfect world, we understand that TSSAA can do what they want because they’re our governing body. We just decided that we ought to go ahead and fall along with what they decided and basically not make a scene. So we took the high road, I guess.”
Speaking of Grace Christian Academy and its mission, Down said, “The reason we exist is not to promote ourselves or our programs, it’s to promote student athletes. So if we’re really in that business to do this for the kids, then I think the last thing you want to do is to impede a kid’s ability to play a sport if he wants to. If you’ve got a contentious divorce situation where neither [parent] wants to pay for the kid’s tuition, then what’s he going to do? If he goes back to his zoned public school, he’s got to sit out for a year, so that doesn’t help him.
“A benevolent act, on a case-by-case basis, is something you have to judge on its merits as opposed to having a blanket rule and saying, ‘Absolutely not.’ I guess I tend to err more on the side of the student than the giver and the gift.”