In the three days since Full Court Press broke the story that girls’ prep sensation Brittney Griner was likely to be a no-show for this year’s McDonald’s All-American Game, there has been a lot going on. A lot of back-pedaling, stonewalling, and finger pointing by the major players involved, that is. Yet despite the flurry of media activity surrounding the story—as it turned out, Griner would be the first young woman and only the second player of either gender in the history of the celebrated event to receive the honor but decline to participate—we are no closer today than we were on Saturday to knowing whether the talented young woman will actually be in Florida on April 1 to take part in these once-in-a-lifetime activities that benefit the Ronald McDonald House Charities.
Griner’s Dad: The Principal Made Her Do It
Though the Griner family has yet to respond to calls and e-mails from Full Court placed through Griner’s designated media consultant Yolande Lezine requesting comment on the story, dad Raymond apparently did find time to chat about the situation with ESPN.com, which ran a story Monday confirming the gravamen of the report Full Court had run two days earlier. Sure enough, dad said, according to ESPN.com's report, the bad news was true: “Brittney Griner, the most ballyhooed girls prep basketball player since Candace Parker will not participate in the 2009 McDonald’s All-American Game because she will not be allowed to take the time away from school, her father said.” (We’re puzzled, but can’t feel too badly, about the Griners’ apparent unwillingness to discuss the matter with this outlet, given that he evidently also stiff-armed the Houston Chronicle, nbcnewyork.com and a host of other media outlets and sports blogs.)
ESPN’s story went on to lay the blame for Griner’s withdrawal from the McDonald’s festivities squarely at the feet of her Nimitz High School principal, Watson Wright, charging that he had sent the McDonald’s committee a letter “saying he would not authorize an excessive absence by Griner.”
Based solely on the Griners’ version of events as related by ESPN.com, fans would have been left to consider whether young Brittney was the victim of a principal who just didn’t get the significance of the honor bestowed on his school and its student-athlete, or the beneficiary of a school administration who appropriately valued academics over athletics. But, of course, the story didn’t end, or at least shouldn’t have ended, there.
The Nimitz Principal: “No Comment”
It seems that despite all the love he was feeling from Ray Griner, ESPN’s Glenn Nelson was getting the cold shoulder from Principal Wright, who wasn’t returning his calls when his story went to press. We at Full Court felt it was important to get the school’s take on this story, as we noted in our original article when we pointed out that we’d been unable to reach school officials for comment over the weekend when the story was released.
Mr. Wright accepted our call, but declined to comment on the story, directing us instead to the Aldine Independent School District’s Public Information Officer, Mike Keeney.
The School District—Round I: “Not True. It Was the Family’s Decision.”
“That’s just not true,” said Mr. Keeney, when read the statement attributed to Mr. Griner in the ESPN HoopGurlz account. Keeney stated unequivocally that Griner and her parents had never been told that she would not be allowed to take time off from her classes to participate in the game, adding that the school district was extremely proud of Griner and her accomplishments and of Nimitz’s progress to the Texas state championships, the final rounds of which will be held in Austin this weekend.
“It’s not a decision for the school to make,” said Keeney. “It’s a family-based decision.” Well, what exactly did that mean? Would Griner suffer any adverse academic or disciplinary consequences if she and her family decide she should attend the game after all? Did Nimitz or the district have any role in making Ms. Griner the first girl in history to miss out McDonald’s All-American honors having been selected to receive them?
“Not at all,” insisted Keeney. Students miss classes all the time for a host of extracurricular and other worthwhile activities. While classroom attendance is encouraged, in the end it is up to Ms. Griner and her parents to decide whether she could go to Miami or not.
Well, then, what about the letter from Principal Wright to the McDonald’s Committee referred to in the ESPN story? Had such a letter been sent? Had an impression been created in the eyes of either the McDonald’s Committee or the Griners that the school would not approve her absence if her family decided to allow her to attend?
Mr. Wright had sent a letter to the Committee, Keeney conceded, but he did so “in consultation with the family.” But why send such a letter, if as Keeney had just told us, the family was free to do as they wished without adverse consequence?
Keeney said he understood that Brittney could only attend only one of the two games and that she had to choose one or the other. But who said she had to choose one or the other, that she couldn’t attend both?
“The family, that’s a family-based decision,” Keeney repeated. So that wasn’t the school’s decision either, we queried. “No, not the school, it’s not up to the school; it’s the family’s decision,” Keeney insisted—politely, but as though dealing with a somewhat thick child.
And so, according to Keeney, as things devolved, Mr. Wright had written the letter at the family’s wishes in an effort to see if they could persuade McDonald’s to reduce the amount of time Brittney would be required to be away from her classes, but McDonald’s was unwilling to yield. It was an all or nothing proposition, he indicated.
The McDonald’s All-American is a five-day event when one rolls in not just the actual game on April 1, but practices, charity appearances, dinners, and what for Griner would have been the all-important Jam Fest. Of course, only three of those days are regular school days, the other two falling on the preceding weekend. Over the years, it has become routine practice for the subset of the McDonald’s All Americans who are also named to the WBCA All-American team to continue their trek from the McDonald’s venue to the site of the NCAA Final Four tournament for the WBCA game in a week of festivities broken by a day of travel.
State Policy: Griner Might Have Been Able to Play Even Without the School’s Approval
After receiving every possible assurance from Keeney that neither Nimitz High nor the Aldine School District was in any way preventing Griner from taking part in either or both tournaments, we detoured into a discussion of a provision in the Texas Education Code that would appear to have allowed Griner to have participated in the game whether or not the principal approved her absence. Under Texas law, a teacher, principal or school superintendent has broad discretion to excuse a student for temporary absence “resulting from any cause acceptable to” them. In fact, state law provides a list of reasons for which the school must excuse the student.
But even if the principal or superintendent won’t excuse an absence, the student’s enrollment cannot be revoked unless a student has accumulated more than five absences in a semester that were not excused. That provision would appear to have allowed Griner to take the entire week off, with or without her principal’s permission, unless she had already burned through this semester’s ration of unexcused absences. Likewise, state law appears to require attendance for only 90 percent of the offered days of instruction in order to be eligible for academic credit, and a student can be gone even longer if she has a plan approved to make up the work missed.
That’s usually 90 percent of 180 days a student must attend to be eligible for credit, but in this case, Hurricane Ike hit Aldine School District, so Keeney said it was a little less. Still, he agreed, simple math meant that Griner would have had to have racked up more than three weeks worth of unapproved absences, without any plan approved to make up the work, before her eligibility to receive academic credit would have come into issue.
Keeney, who conceded that he wasn’t too familiar with these provisions, promised to look into the district’s attendance policy and get back to us. In a follow-up call, we asked if he could also supply a copy of Wright’s letter to the McDonald’s Committee.
That left us the evening to ponder how two grown men—her father, as reported by ESPN, and her school principal, as reported by the district’s spokesman--both of whom no doubt had Brittney’s best interests at heart, could have come to conclusions so completely at odds about the simple question of whether this young woman would be allowed to take time off from school to accept one of the nation’s most highly coveted athletic honors and, if the answer to that question was “No,” just who it was who was making that decision
District Attendance Policy: Well, Then Again, Perhaps Not
True to his word, Mike Keeney had an e-mail waiting for us the next morning, laying out the Aldine School District’s attendance policy. It seems that they operate under a bit stricter interpretation of the Great State of Texas’s school attendance requirements. As set out in Aldine’s attendance policy:
“High school students may only have three (3) unexcused absences per semester in order to receive credit. However, if a student 18 years or older has five (5) unexcused absences in a semester, the district may revoke the student’s enrollment…. A student who fails to attend classes for at least 90 percent of the days the class is offered cannot receive credit for the class—even if the days were excused by the school district for medical or other reasons. … ”
At the same time, the district’s policy provides a laundry list of activities for which a student’s absence either may or must be excused, ranging from doctors’ appointments, to religious observances, to playing Taps at military funerals, and, generally for “absences approved by the principal in advance.” It also states, “Students must bring a note from the parent or guardian requesting an excused absence for one of these reasons.”
Indeed, the policy provides that a student may not only have his or her absence excused but may actually be counted as “present for ADA purposes” if they are absent for “participation in a board-approved and appropriately supervised extracurricular activity or performance.”
The Aldine policy raised a number of questions. Had Griner’s parents ever actually requested in writing that she be excused for the entire week of the two games? Had the principal refused their request? Had the family taken their authorized appeal to the school board, and if so, what action had the board taken? Why would a prestigious honorary high school athletic and charitable event such as the McDonald’s All-American Game fail to qualify as “participation in a board-approved and appropriately supervised extracurricular activity or performance”?
Still, Griner is only 17, and so, apparently, gets just three bites at the unexcused absence apple. Thus, whether justified or not, if her principal had, as her father evidently contended, said that he would not approve a week’s worth of absences, her goose might very well have been cooked.
Though Keeney continued to insist this was not the case, it made Principal Wright’s letter to the McDonald’s Committee all the more significant. We renewed our campaign to obtain a copy of the letter—from the district, from McDonald’s, or from the Griners’ designated media consultant.
Mickey D’s: The Game Is More Important than Any One Player
In the interim, the Houston Chronicle had come out with its account of the Griner story, one that, in essence, split the baby. The Chronicle’s version relied heavily on a written statement from Morgan Wooten, the McDonald’s event chair. Wooten confirms that the McDonald’s event staff “was recently informed that Brittney Griner will be unable to participate in the McDonald’s All-American High School Basketball Games.”
Coach Wooten attributes Griner’s nonparticipation to “conflicts with her class schedule,” adding, “[W]e support Ms. Griner, Nimitz High School officials and the Aldine Independent School District, and share in their conviction that education comes first,” but without stating who it was who had concluded that both could not be accomplished in this instance.
A spokesman for McDonald’s confirmed that Griner will remain on the event’s roster, and will receive her ring, uniform, and all the other benefits ordinarily accorded to participants. Many of the game’s superstars from Shaq, Kobe, and LeBron James on the men’s side to Candace Parker, Marissa Coleman, Alexis Hornbuckle, and Shanna Zolman in the six years the game has been played on the girls’ side, have gotten their first major television exposure on a national stage in the McDonald’s All American game, and, of course, that’s one benefit Griner cannot receive in absentia.
But the spokesman underscored the larger purpose of the event that over the years since the game was first played in 1978 has raised millions of dollars for the Ronald McDonald House Charities and its network of local chapters, many of them in the hometown communities from which the honored players have been drawn. He expressed hope that the controversy over who was and wasn’t playing would not distract attention from the larger purpose of the game. “This game is much more important than any one player,” he said.
Brittney Speaks (Kind of): “Things … Stated Verbally … Caused Questions of Concern Pertaining to Graduation”
Early Tuesday, the Houston Roundball Review (www.thehrr.com) posted the following statement purporting to be a press release from Griner’s media consultant Yolande Lezine Communications:
“Nimitz High School senior post and McDonald's All-American selection Brittney Griner will not be participating in the 2009 McDonald's High School All American game scheduled for Wednesday, April 1st in Miami, Florida.
”The game, which is played in the middle of week (sic) requires participation (sic) to be in attendance for events that cover a total of five days.
“’The McDonald's All-American game was put in my school's hand for approval and was discussed with various members of the Aldine Independent School District administration,’ Brittney Griner stated.
“’An official ruling was given by the district through my principal Mr. Watson Wright; however, there were many things that were stated verbally that caused questions of concern pertaining to graduation.’
”Griner has accepted the decision made by Mr. Wright and the Aldine Independent School District and she has personally sent the McDonald's All-American committee a sincere ‘Thank You’ for her selection.
”McDonald's spokesperson David Gardiner stated that Griner would still have her spot on the roster and would still receive her ring, uniform, and other items given to all participants.
”There was no statement that was given on behalf of Brittney Griner or her family to the Aldine Independent School District and there will be no further comments pertaining to this matter.”
A McDonald’s spokesman confirmed that the event had indeed received such a “Thank You” communication from Griner, bowing out of the event.
Principal’s Letter to McDonald’s: “I Cannot Approve of [Griner’s] Absences at this Time”
Finally, at nearly 4:30 p.m. yesterday, the school district released a copy of Principal Wright’s letter to the McDonald’s Committee. On its face, and contrary to the representations made by the school district’s spokesman a day earlier, the letter, dated February 26, 2009, appears to corroborate the Griners’ contentions that the school was responsible for Griner’s decision to withdraw:
“February 26, 2009
To Whom It May Concern:
I am writing this letter to inform you that as the Principal of Nimitz High School, I have the discretion to approve of absences that students are requesting that are beyond State regularly approved absences. The Mc Donald Corporation is requesting that Britney Griner take part in its McDonald All-American game, and the activities accompanying it. The absences being asked for are excessive. I can not approve of her absences at this time.
Watson Wright, Principal”
In his e-mail transmitting the Wright letter, Keeney took pains to note:
“It should be pointed out that letter was written Feb. 26. I think the last sentence in his letter is pertinent.”
What exactly is the district’s point: That Wright was merely telling McDonald’s that he could not approve of Griner’s absence as of February 26, but reserving the right to change his mind and approve the absence later?
Keeney has never withdrawn his representation that Wright wrote his letter “in consultation with” Griner’s parents, nor that the decision for Griner not to attend the game was that of the Griner family. But absent a wink and a nod--some verbal or nonverbal communication that the principal really didn’t intend to stand by what he was saying within the scope of the letter itself, Brittney, her parents, McDonald’s and any reasonable person reading that letter would be likely to interpret it as meaning that if she chose to attend the event, it would be without her principal’s approval, and hence an unexcused absence.
And if that, indeed, was the meaning attached to the principal's letter, then in light of the Aldine School District’s three-day limit on unexcused absences for high school students, Griner and her parents would have further reasonably understood her to be in jeopardy of losing credit for her final semester of high school if they chose to attend the McDonald’s Game over the principal’s objections.
That being the case, it seems disingenuous, at best, for the school district to have contended that it was “a family-based decision” for Griner to sit the game out. Keeney, the district’s spokesman, was courteous and professional throughout our dealings with him, and we believe he was doing his best to communicate truthfully based on the information available to him at the time in question. Perhaps it was our repeated requests to see the Wright letter that brought additional facts to light. But seriously, what responsible high school senior, with a scholarship and a college future on the line, would decide to run on along to the All-American Game if told that the price of accepting the honor was her high school diploma?
District’s Current Ruling: Griner Can Now Go; All She Needs Is a Note from Her Parents
Arriving almost simultaneously with the Wright letter was a bold-faced, one-sentence official statement to the media from the Aldine Independent School District. It read as follows:
“Statement on Brittney Griner and McDonald’s All-American game
“If the parent requests that his daughter be allowed to miss school to participate in the McDonald’s All-American Game, her absences will be excused and she will be allowed to make up any missed work.”
Mr. Keeney advised us that this would be the District’s final word on the subject.
We may never know the full story of how and why Principal Wright’s letter came to pass, whether the Griners ever attempted to appeal from Wright's decision, or whether the Aldine School District would have overruled the principal’s decision had the Griners simply asked them to do so, in the absence of the media attention that has developed since we put the spotlight on her withdrawal from the game.
What we do know is that the ball is now squarely in Griner’s court. What she says and does from this point forward will tell us for sure whether she and her family really want her to be there or not.
Aldine School District is now clearly and unequivocally willing to let her go, she can make up any missed class work, and she no longer has any reason to worry about loss of credit or a failure to graduate due to issues surrounding her attendance at the Game.
A spokesman for McDonald’s said they’ve heard nothing from Griner since her withdrawal and “Thank You,” but she’s more than welcome to return—she still has her place on the roster. In fact, they—and many fans, would be delighted to see her not only play in the game but take part in the Slam Jam event as well.
So, how about it, Dad? Can Brittney come out and play? All she needs is a note from her parents.
Photo Credit: AP Photo/Houston Chronicle/Michael Paulsen