The Illinois High School Association (IHSA) board of directors issued a ruling on December 10 in a high-profile case involving four Illinois student athletes. The students, who are Sudanese, were brought to the United States by A-HOPE, an Indiana-based non-profit foundation that aims to help student athletes from Africa obtain educations in the United States. Although the IHSA Board will allow the students to participate in athletics, it also ruled that any student who is referred to an Illinois school by an organization that aims to place student-athletes in an educational setting is presumptively ineligible for athletics. That opinion has implications for schools across Illinois. Accordingly, when student athletes are represented by someone other than their guardian, schools need to ask questions. No matter how noble an organization’s name, schools need to be vigilant against those who would take advantage of children or potentially face eligibility challenges for their students and their programs.

The ruling addresses the eligibility of four young men from Sudan. The students reportedly came to Mooseheart, a suburban Chicago residential school for at-need children, 18 months ago to fulfill dreams of obtaining a United States education to use back home in Sudan. The student visas that allow the students to study here were obtained with the help of A-HOPE, which stands for African Hoop Opportunities Providing an Education. A-HOPE has drawn scrutiny from the sports media and the NCAA in the past two years, most notably standing at the center of the nine-game suspension of Indiana Hoosiers basketball players Hanner Mosquera-Parea and Peter Jurkin. Mosquera-Parea and Jurkin reportedly lived with A-HOPE’s founder, Mark Adams, who was also their AAU coach and assumed legal guardian, during high school.

The four students at issue in the IHSA Board’s ruling—Mangisto Deng, Makur Puou, Akim Nyang, and Wal Khat—drew headlines for their athletic performances at Mooseheart. Deng, Puou and Nyang helped Mooseheart win victories on the basketball court, although Mooseheart was by no means a powerhouse even with the 6-foot-7, 6-foot-8, and 7-foot tall players. Khat was the first Mooseheart cross country medalist in the school’s history.

In its December 10 ruling, the IHSA Board, which is made of up 10 high school principals from around the state, found that “[t]he students were taken advantage of by A-Hope Foundation and people related to that organization.” Nonetheless, the Board deemed the students eligible to participate in interscholastic athletics. The Board noted that the students had already served a 365-day period of ineligibility.

The Board then stated: “henceforth any school accepting referrals of students from A-Hope Foundation or any other organization having as its purpose the placement of student-athletes in educational settings, shall be presumptively ineligible.” Moreover, the Board placed Mooseheart on immediate probation, rendering it ineligible to participate in the 2013 IHSA Basketball State Series, pending Mooseheart’s completion of the following to IHSA Executive Director’s satisfaction: (1) review and refinement of the admissions process to assure compliance with IHSA By-laws and Procedures; (2) training and education program for all Mooseheart coaches and administrators to assure compliance with IHSA By-laws, with particular focus on the unique structure of Mooseheart within the IHSA; and (3) submission of a Compliance Plan. IHSA said the school should be able to complete the tasks in time to compete in the 2013 end-of-year state basketball series, which starts in late February.

According to the Mooseheart website, in 2011 the IHSA Board had previously determined that the Sudanese students were eligible for athletics. In November, 2012, however, IHSA Executive Director Mary Hickman notified Mooseheart that the four students were permanently ineligible because they had been “recruited” to compete in athletics at Mooseheart. Mooseheart reportedly said that the IHSA reached this decision after waging “secret investigation at the urging of a rival high school.” Mooseheart then sought and obtained a temporary restraining order that allowed the students to continue participating in athletics until the December 10 ruling..