Valdosta loses final appeal as penalties stand

(L-R) GHSA president Glenn White, executive director Robin Hines and attorney Alan Connell listen to arguments at the Valdosta appeal before the GHSA board of trustees.
(L-R) GHSA president Glenn White, executive director Robin Hines and attorney Alan Connell listen to arguments at the Valdosta appeal before the GHSA board of trustees.

THOMASTON — After hearing nearly three hours of testimony and arguments, the Georgia High School Association’s board of trustees voted unanimously to reject Valdosta High School’s final appeal of its punishment, meaning the state’s signature football program will be ineligible for the 2021 postseason.

The decision also upheld the ineligibility of four Valdosta players to participate in athletics at any GHSA school in 2021-22, as well as the $7,500 fine. Valdosta also will forfeit all its games from 2020.

“It’s disappointing,” said Todd Cason, superintendent for Valdosta City Schools. “We were hoping to at least get the punishment reduced.”

The process began April 8 when the GHSA informed Valdosta High School of a series of fines and penalties, and declared the football team ineligible for the postseason in 2021. The school was assessed a $7,500 fine for recruiting players and lack of institutional control. Five players were ruled ineligible for all GSHA sports. Four of those players will be seniors in the fall.

Before the final vote Tuesday, an amendment was proposed to remove Valdosta quarterback Amari Jones from the penalties. Robin Smith, Jones’ mother, testified earlier that her move from Atlanta to Valdosta was predicated on keeping her son safe from the high-crime area in which they lived. She had family living in Valdosta. But that motion did not draw a second and was dismissed.

It leaves Jones, Tahj Sanders, Jamad Willis and Ty’li Lewis ineligible. Tim Sanders, father of Tahj, said their family may end up moving to Florida so his son can play this fall.

“My heart goes out to these young men,” Cason said. “We have 61 young men who are participating in spring practice and to have to share with them that they can have a season but not play in the postseason is disappointing. For the four young men, it’s very unfortunate because their parents continue to say they were not involved in any recruitment. We have to move forward.”

The school went before the four-member board of appeals April 19 and had that first appeal unanimously turned down. Valdosta chose not to appeal later that day at the GSHA’s executive committee meeting, opting instead for one final plea before the board of trustees.

Since then the school has fired head football coach Rush Propst, who was accused of recruiting players and paying for their housing and utilities with a “funny money” account. Propst was terminated by a 5-3 vote by the Valdosta school board. Shelton Felton has been named interim coach and is conducting spring practice.

The school tired to distance itself from Propst throughout the hearings and attempted to foist the blame in his direction. But the tape-recorded meeting between the coach and then-Valdosta Touchdown Club president Mike “Nub” Nelson proved too much to overcome at the appeal, and the penalties stood. GHSA executive director Robin Hines based much of his decision on information obtained in those recordings.

“I felt very comfortable that the evidence the appeal, and this appeal showed there was no physical evidence,” Cason said. “All we have is the recording — and while the recording is damning, don’t get me wrong … I do understand the dynamics — there was no physical evidence that these young men were recruited.”

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