The Controversy

Robert Swift has played against the best players at the high school, college, and pro levels. None have shut him down. This summer an eligibility controversy nearly did what no other player has been able to, keep Robert from shining on the hardwood.

Garces is a private Catholic high school in Bakersfield. When Robert Swift enrolled there for his freshman year the school provided the Swift family with financial aid to help offset the $5,000 yearly tuition cost. When his sophomore year rolled around, according to the Swifts, Garces threatened to withdraw Robert's financial aid. Ultimately the school relented and once again Robert attended Garces.

But as Robert's junior year ended Garces had decided that this time the Swifts would have to pay, and though Bruce is gamefully employed, the $5000 price tag for Garces wasn't within reach. The Swifts enrolled Robert at Highland High School, just two blocks away from their home. Robert would be enrolled at Highland for less than one month, and the controversy that continues to swirl around the events to follow had Robert and his family considering, among other options, a move to Connecticut to finish school and dropping out of school to play professional ball in Europe.

When I talked to Robert he was noticeably uncomfortable with questions regarding this matter. It was only on November 26th that he was finally deemed eligible to play for BHS, and the body granting him his eligibility was a state court. He talked, but guardedly, about the situation. It is behind him now, and he would very much like to move on.

James Renwick: Walk me through exactly what happened.

Robert Swift: I went to Garces for three years, almost. It's a private Catholic school and tuition there is $5000 a year. My family couldn't afford it, but the school gave us financial aid my freshman year, and then tried to take it away my sophomore year. There were some big arguments, and they gave it back to us. And then my junior year they did the same thing and so I had to leave. My house at the time was two blocks from Highland (High School) so I transferred to Highland. They cleared everything, said I was eligible to play at Highland, and then over the summer my family moved, and Highland went back and said I wasn't eligible.

JR: Was the move a conscious decision to play at BHS? Or did you still intend on playing at Highland?

RS: We knew our new house would put me at a different school, but we actually thought we'd be at Stockdale (High School) because it's five minutes away from here. My dad is closer to work, and he works on call 24 hours a day, so instead of being 30 minutes from work (at their old house) he's five minutes away now.

I didn't like the way Robert looked when he talked about this situation. He is, after all is said and done, a kid. He may be seven feet tall, but he's still only 18 years old. He didn't want to relive this, and I didn't want to make him. Still, there was one last question I wanted an answer to.

JR: If the CIF's decision had come down the other way, and you were ruled ineligible to play at BHS, would you have gone back to Highland?

RS: No. We were looking at a Prep School in South Canton, Connecticut, and my father and I might have moved there.

JR: If the CIF had said no to BHS, and Garces had come back and told you they'd give you financial aid again, would you have returned there.

RS: We would have considered that, yes.

In order for a student athlete to qualify for a college scholarship, there are certain "core" classes that one must pass. This is in addition to SAT or ACT scores and many other qualifications. Mark Hutson coached at Bakersfield High School for years, and after his retirement he stayed on at the school as a part time Assistant Dean and worked, among other things, in the athletic department. He is not a member of the Bakersfield High School Administration. In early May this year the Swifts attended a birthday party for a member of Bakersfield High's basketball team. This would be the first time Bruce Swift and Mark Hutson would meet.

During the conversation Hutson asked Bruce Swift how Robert was doing in these "core" classes. Much to Hutson's surprise neither Bruce nor his wife Rhonda had even heard of the core classes. Bruce Swift asked Mr. Hutson to look at his son's transcripts and help them out, as he felt Highland's counselors were doing an inadequate job. Mr. Hutson agreed to look at the transcripts, but denies agreeing that the counselors at Highland were inadequate, and early the next week he looked at the transcripts and found that Robert was indeed in danger of losing his scholarship to USC.

There were legitimate reasons that things might not have been clear-cut for the counselors at Highland. California State law prohibits a school from releasing a student's transcripts without written authorization from the student?s parents, and thus Garces had yet to release Roberts's transcripts. In addition, the guidelines for qualifying for an athletic scholarship differ from simply qualifying for school, and not every counselor has experience with athletes being offered scholarships. Nonetheless, after their conversations with Hutson, the Swifts were anxious about their son's academic standing and asked Hutson for help.

From here on things get dicey. The Swifts met with Hutson at BHS. According to the Swifts and Hutson the meeting was strictly about Roberts classes and what he would need to do to qualify for his scholarship. When Hutson informed BHS's principal about the meeting he stressed that it was in no way a recruitment meeting, but instead simply an attempt to help a student. According to Hutson, his principal encouraged him to help any student, regardless of where they play. The Athletic Director of Highland High School, Mark Weir, saw things differently, particularly when the Swifts moved across town and into the district that would have Robert attending Bakersfield High School.

Clearly the Swifts felt the root of the problem was at Highland.

In documents the Swifts have made public, there does seem to be some truth to that statement. Often in formal complaints and letters, Mark Weir the Athletic Director at Highland High School embellishes and/or, according to the Swifts, flat out lies about things that were said by BHS's Mark Hutson during the meeting. Weir claims that Hutson said, "the counselors at Highland didn't know what they were doing with Robert's schedule and that their knowledge of Proposition 48 matters was zero." The Swifts say that statement was never made, and Hutson goes so far as to say that during his initial meetings with the Swift family he encouraged them to work with the counselors at Highland and that the staff at Highland would see to it that Robert would be eligible.

Interestingly enough Hutson considered Weir a friend prior to the Robert Swift situation. That friendship is certainly lost now, as both Weir and Hutson have put their professional reputations on the line, each claiming the other to be a liar.

The accusations grew more and more intense, and ultimately Weir took his case to the CIF. He refused to sign a letter granting Robert eligibility at BHS claiming that Hutson, and his son (the current boys Varsity Basketball Coach Justin Hutson) had actively recruited Robert from as early as 8th grade.

The CIF, as with many governing bodies, has rules that can be vague and specific at the same time. For instance:

When a coach or staff member is initially contacted by a non-approved student, parent, friend, or relative of a non-approved student, the following responses are appropriate.

A. It is permissible for the staff member to explain the process of open enrollment and where to go for more information.

B. Beyond that, the staff member should refer the individual to the school site principal, assistant principal or district administration for further information.

C. If desired, the interested parties representing the non-approved student then can set up an appointment with the school site assistant principal or principal.

D. If official contact is made to a school outside the official residence area, the "home school" principal should be notified by the "contacted school" principal or designee.

E. In no case may an official of one school denigrate, criticize, or attack another school's programs, students, staffer policies.

Hutson claims his conversations with Robert were in no way recruitment conversations. His objectives were for Robert to remain at Highland, and be eligible for his scholarship. But even with those parameters, there appears to be room for him to have violated the rules in the above passage. Because he gave Robert and his family more information on the rules and obligations Robert had to follow to qualify, he could be (and was) cited as giving more than just information on "the process of open enrollment."

When the matter was finally presented to a State Court, the ruling body finally put all the bickering aside and did what someone should have done from the beginning, put Robert Swift first. The state court ultimately decided that a child should not be punished for the mistakes the adults around him make.

But the accusations continue, and the costs for others involved could be drastic. BHS was sanctioned in the court's ruling, and Hutson and the Principal at BHS were both singled out for their actions. The charges of recruiting still continue in whispers over coffee, and there is a sense that whatever the records of BHS, Highland, and even Garces this upcoming season the 2003-04 boys basketball season will be a tainted one.

Which is a shame. This should be a year of celebration for all involved. For Robert, it should be his swan song. The last opportunity he will have to showcase his skills at the high school level. His opponents this upcoming season should be able to walk tall and tell their friends and families that yes, they played against Robert Swift. The coaches, both at BHS, and at opposing schools, should be focused on what makes Robert great, perhaps what the chinks in his armor are, how to exploit his talents on the court.

Bruce Swift says the reason he wants this story out in the open is not out of vengance toward Highland, the CIF, or anyone else. He's a little embarrassed that he didn't know more, and was more than a little scared that by the time he knew what was happening, he wouldn't be able to help his son. "Just make sure parents know that they absolutely MUST be involved. Learn what is needed, and make sure that the people in charge are giving those things to your kid. That's the lesson I learned, and I hope every parent learns from our situation."

One the ball is in play it becomes obvious that Robert feels more comfortable. He is protected by the officials on the court, and unlike the officials off the court, he can actually talk to, and plead his case to, the men and women in stripes. In a championship game this past weekend between BHS and Liberty, there was a particularly overzealous Liberty fan that had decided it was his duty to rattle Robert. In strange, and incredibly loud, voices the young man (a student at Liberty) was relentless in his needling of Robert. This fan crossed the line over and over again. I asked Robert how he reacted to that, if it simply made him try harder, or if it did indeed throw him off. His reply showed just how much he's been through, and how much easier it would have been if he'd been on the basketball court when all this was happening.

RS: I don't really hear the guy. You know what I mean, I hear him, I just don't listen. At one point the ref actually came over and told me if I wanted to he'd make him leave, and I just didn't care. I tell you though, there was a girl sitting near him, and she started saying stuff, sort of defending me I guess. I heard that.

This past summer, Robert certainly had people defending him, and I'm certain he heard those people. The question really is, was there a difference between the CIF investigation, and that kid at courtside with the funny voices?

James Renwick


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