BLOOMINGTON -- The Illinois High School Association ruled Monday that four Sudanese students can play sports, but placed their Batavia high school on probation and said the foundation that brought the athletes to the U.S. took advantage of them.
The three basketball players and one cross-country runner, all juniors at Mooseheart High School, had worried about the IHSA's final decision and what it would mean for their dreams of obtaining college scholarships, earning degrees and returning home to help rebuild their war-torn country.
The IHSA, which governs the state's interscholastic sports, got involved after the coach of a rival high school's basketball team raised questions about A-HOPE, an Indiana-based foundation that paid for the four to come to the United States.
On Monday, the IHSA said the athletes are safe, but Mooseheart is ineligible to participate in the 2013 end-of-year state basketball series until it completes IHSA directives, which include reviewing and refining admissions processes to make sure those comply with IHSA rules.
IHSA officials said the school should be able to complete the tasks with enough time to participate in the series, which start in late February.
The IHSA also said A-HOPE took advantage of the students, and that any Illinois school that accepts referrals from A-HOPE or similar organizations, will be "presumptively ineligible."
Messages left through A-HOPE's website weren't immediately returned Monday.
The decision hinged on the board's interviews with the students, IHSA board president Dan Klett said in a conference call with reporters.
"It was clear the students were not aware of everything that was going on," but were "looking for an opportunity to get to the United States, to get and education," and to go back and help their country, Klett said. "Anybody who wants to give them a chance, they're going to jump at it."
A-HOPE, on the other hand, was "more concerned about basketball," Klett said. The Sudanese athletes, with A-HOPE's help, came to the U.S. on student visas.
"They were going after those with height and athletic ability," Klett said. "We do not want to encourage that."
A-HOPE, which stands for African Hoop Opportunities Providing an Education, is based in Bloomington, Ind. Its mission is helping "African student athletes studying in the U.S., but whose financial ability would otherwise make it impossible," according to the nonprofit's federal income tax forms. Many of the foundation's students play on the founder's AAU basketball team during the summer.
The Sudanese students -- basketball players Mangisto Deng, Makur Puou and Akim Nyang; and cross-country runner Wal Khat -- came to Mooseheart after the school's basketball coach reached out to A-HOPE.
Mooseheart's executive director Scott Hart has denied that anyone at the school was interested in their athletic abilities before they arrived.
Hart said Monday that the school is pleased the students can play sports and is "more than willing" to make the changes necessary to get off probation. He said the school heard the IHSA's message not to do business with A-HOPE.
A-HOPE's founder, Mark Adams, previously has drawn scrutiny. Last month, the NCAA suspended two Indiana University freshmen for nine games and required them to repay a part of the impermissible benefits they received from Adams, including plane tickets, meals, housing, a laptop computer, a cellphone and clothing. The NCAA said Adams was considered an Indiana University booster because he once donated $185 to the school's Varsity Club.
The IHSA board met at the group's Bloomington office Monday to hear Mooseheart's appeal of the IHSA executive director's ruling that the four athletes were ineligible to compete because of a violation of the association's bylaw prohibiting recruitment of students for athletic purposes. Last week, a judge allowed the players to compete in one more basketball game pending the board's decision. That game on Wednesday resulted in a 58-51 loss to Hinckley-Big Rock, the school that raised questions about A-HOPE.
Mooseheart is part of Mooseheart Child City and School, a 1,000-acre residential center for children from troubled homes that is supported by the Loyal Order of Moose and the Women of the Moose.