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Running Interference

The cross-country team at McCallie School in Chattanooga would have been a high school powerhouse, maybe even a state champion, if four of the Blue Tornado's top runners hadn't been ineligible. The banned athletes all have the same problem. You guessed it: It's their grades.

They're too good.

The four runners—senior Tyler Richard, juniors David McCandless and Ryan Schumacher, and sophomore Gil Walton—have report cards with more A's than the first page of the phone book. They're all members of the school's Honors Scholar program, in which they have grade-point averages near 4.0 or above. That's the kind of academic performance that earned them full merit scholarships to McCallie, an all-boys private school at which the tuition for boarding students, as those four are, is $36,850. But under the rules of the state's athletic association, students who receive any subsidies other than need-based financial aid are ineligible to compete in varsity sports.

In other words the McCallie four are banned despite near-perfect GPAs, but if they suddenly turned into mediocre students and lost their scholarships, they would be in good athletic standing. Maybe they should start writing their term papers in pig Latin, or taking multiple-choice tests using the eeny-meeny-miney-mo method to get their grants pulled. Crazy? No crazier than Richard, the class valedictorian who's headed to Harvard, being ineligible to run for the varsity during his high school career. "It feels like we're getting punished for being serious students," Walton says. "The hardest part is not getting the chance to represent your school at the highest level."

State athletic officials realize that it seems unfair to keep such outstanding students from competing on the varsity level, but they consider it an unfortunate consequence of a well-intentioned and necessary rule. (Tennessee is not the only state that regulates how much merit-based aid an athlete can receive—Kentucky, for instance, limits merit scholarships for athletes to 25% of tuition—but completely prohibiting qualified athletes from receiving academic scholarships is rare.) Without such regulation, Tennessee officials say, there would be nothing to stop wealthy private schools such as McCallie, which has a $12 million endowment for scholarships, from attracting top athletes by offering to pay their way. The football team needs a quarterback?Let's give Johnny Golden Arm a "merit" scholarship.

"This isn't the first time this kind of situation has come up, and it's never easy," says Bernard Childress, executive director of the Tennessee Secondary School Athletic Association (TSSAA). "The only thing I could say to them is that it's unfortunate that they've been caught in these long-standing, hard-and-fast rules, but the bigger picture is about keeping a level playing field."

But what's the point of preventing abuse of the system if by doing so, some of the most worthy students are shut out? In an age when some athletes go high school shopping, concerned only with finding the best athletic program, and others scrape by with borderline passing grades, state associations should be trying to clone athletes like the McCallie runners, not ban them.

The boys didn't come to McCallie to build a cross-country juggernaut, but they have developed into strong runners, giving the Blue Tornado a scary good jayvee. All four have personal bests in the 5K that would have placed them in the top 30 at the private school state meet—Walton's 16:19.26 is the fastest of the group—and they're even better with the books. McCandless won an award for the highest junior class GPA. Walton takes AP classes in history and chemistry and helps lead a weekly Bible study. As for Schumacher, he says he struggled with one of his four AP classes, U.S. history. "It's not my strong point," he says. He got an A-.

Schumacher, Walton and their parents have tried to persuade the TSSAA to work with them on a compromise—perhaps allowing merit scholarship students to run just in the state meet, or giving them only a year or two of varsity eligibility—but they've been unable even to get the matter on the organization's agenda. "Gil and I have talked about going Shawshank Redemption on them and sending them a letter every day," says Schumacher. "Just try to chip away at it until they give in."

There is another option. The runners would be eligible if the families declined the financial aid and paid the tuition themselves. Richard's parents offered to do that for his senior year, but he told them it wasn't necessary. It's disappointing that he never ran varsity, he says, "but I consider that a small inkblot on the canvas of my high school career." (I told you he was going to Harvard.)

And the picture looks no brighter for scholarship athletes down the road. "There doesn't seem to be any sentiment for making exceptions," says Ellis Haguewood, the former director of the committee of school headmasters in Tennessee, which could propose amending the eligibility rule. "It would be hard to wade through each situation and say that some are eligible and some are not. I don't know how we would devise that kind of system."

That's a job for some bright, eager, hard-working young minds. Rumor has it there are four kids at McCallie who might fit the bill.

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The McCallie School runners are ineligible despite near-perfect GPAs, but if they turned into mediocre students, they'd be in good athletic standing.