Forgeries, Fraud and Forfeitures: Over-Age Youth Athletes | Sports Destination Management

Forgeries, Fraud and Forfeitures: Over-Age Youth Athletes

May 09, 2024 | By: Mary Helen Sprecher

Headlines exploded last year when a 32-year-old social worker was arrested for posing as a high school student and playing for the school’s girls’ basketball team, all while maintaining her full-time job.

Shelby Hewitt of Massachusetts forged documents and enrolled herself as a teenager, entering a local high school and becoming a student athlete. As her trial continues, officials are being asked why – and how – it happened.

The reasons for the alleged fraud are still unclear, as an investigation into her ongoing court case by the Boston Globe saw former classmates and furious parents question how she pulled it off. 

“Why did you do this?” Hewitt’s classmate Janell Lamons asked. “I feel betrayed and confused.”

It sounds eerily like the plot of an episode of 21 Jump Street, the late 80s/early 90s TV show about youthful-looking police officers infiltrating high schools to stop juvenile crime. In real life, it’s far from the first case of over-age students trying to shoehorn themselves into youth sports.

Five years ago, 25-year-old Sidney Gilstrap enrolled in a Dallas high school with the express intention of reliving his teenaged glory days. It worked until a coach from his actual high school years saw him on the basketball court and notified authorities, resulting in Gilstrap’s arrest. And back in 2016, a Canadian youth basketball team forfeited its wins after its star center was exposed as being 30 years old.

How does it happen? The reasons are many and varied. In some cases, coaches or athletic directors look the other way, preferring to have a strong player and a winning season. In others, documentation is falsified or athletes (or their parents) claim it was lost. Sometimes, paperwork relating to eligibility is not checked thoroughly by administrators, who simply have no reason to suspect anything is wrong.

In Des Moines, the Des Moines Roosevelt boys basketball team had to forfeit nine games following the news that one of its players was not a teenager – but instead, 20. California high school athletic administrators, meanwhile, had to take action after it came to light that a 19-year-old who had already finished high school was playing on the Montclair High School football team. (The player was arrested and charged with submitting false documents.)

In Michigan, an Inkster High School student athlete was discovered to be over-age, causing his football team to forfeit all victories to the date of discovery. And in Kentucky, a youth soccer team self-reported when it discovered it had been fielding a 19-year-old player. This isn't a USA-specific problem, either; in India, officials had to remove more than 70 over-age competitors from its National Junior Athletics Championship

Overage Students playing HS SportsMany high schools have rules in place, governing the age at which students can play sports. In Florida, for example, 19 is the top age for high school sports. Michigan also has age rules in place. Maryland has a 19-year rule and the Washington (DC) Catholic Athletic Conference does not allow players who turn 19 before Sept. 1, or who have played eight semesters of high school sports, to compete. Some states have an 18-year age limit, while others only quantify the number of semesters a student can attend high school and still remain eligible for athletics.

Oddly, Kentucky, while it has a top age limit for high school play, also allows seventh- and eighth-graders to "play up" on high school teams, with the exception of football and soccer. The choice of whether to allow younger athletes on older age-group teams is the subject of ongoing discussion in the youth sports space.

But when it comes to the reason over-age players try to be part of youth teams, there is no one reason; answers are all over the map. Sometimes, older athletes enjoy dominating play and seek ways to continue doing so, even at the risk of having their team eliminated from competition if the ruse is found out. Other times, players’ parents buy into the scheme, wanting them to attract the attention of college coaches – with the ever-sought-after athletic scholarship in mind. (A parent tried to test the waters on the subject in an online forum and was roundly criticized. "You're 'that parent' that all coaches want to see go," noted one person.)

In some cases, like that of Sidney Gilstrap, individuals are trying to regain something they enjoyed: their former identities as youth athletes. Then there are mystifying cases like that of the Boston social worker, where there are simply no answers – yet. The defendant has noted that the truth “will come out in time.” Until then, however, the 32-year-old's motivation for the alleged year-long con remains unknown and the Internet is rife with memes like this.

There have been legal challenges as well; advocates for those with disabilities have stated that the practice of trying to enforce age limits is discriminatory to students and young adults with learning disabilities, since they do not progress through school, or through youth sports, at the same pace as others their age.

A separate issue entirely is that of parents who redshirt their children, holding them back a year, sometimes more, in order to allow them to gain height, strength and speed before beginning high school sports. In some cases, redshirting starts in kindergarten, although many parents opt to take the step later. But last year, Pennsylvania took action against the practice, establishing guidance stating that student-athletes who repeat eighth grade for no reason will lose a year of eligibility in high school. Other states have put rules in place as well.

The National Federation of State High School Associations came out against the trend of redshirting (sometimes called reclassing or reclassifying), which shot up in popularity with parents in the wake of the pandemic, when schools were closed and students were unable to compete. In many cases, executive director Dr. Karissa Niehoff noted, the practice takes away roster spots from deserving younger students.

In response to the growing problem, some tournaments and leagues have begun using registration apps with age-verification tools.

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