Like it or not, three Benton Harbor boys basketball players will be eligible to play starting tonight against Portage Northern.

The three – Chris Conway, Justin Brown and Devan Nichols – all sat out the first half of the school year due to transferring in from other schools under the Michigan High School Athletic Association’s transfer rules.

A fourth – T.J. Jones – was eligible at the start of the school year.

Many have accused Benton Harbor of recruiting these students, all of which have Benton Harbor roots.

Having four students transfer in does raise obvious questions.

Based on information gathered by The Herald-Palladium since last June, here is why these four boys are now all eligible to play basketball.

Devan Nichols

Nichols, a former Berrien Springs standout, was ineligible for 90 days under the MHSAA transfer rule as an “athletic related” transfer.

There was no formal protest or objection from Berrien Springs in regard to the transfer.

T.J. Jones

Jones, another former Shamrock standout, transferred to Benton Harbor last year. He was granted immediate eligibility because his parents divorced, and he moved with a parent to Benton Harbor. But before he got immediate eligibility, the MHSAA’s Educational Transfer Form had to be signed by both Benton Harbor and Berrien Springs high school principals.

That satisfies one of the 15 main exceptions to the MHSAA’s transfer rule.

Chris Conway

Conway transferred from Lakeshore last spring. His transfer was not contested by Lakeshore. 

Current Benton Harbor Athletic Director Tray Crusciel and his predecessor, retired AD Fred Smith, both have said that Conway wasn’t having much success at Lakeshore and that the transfer was in his best interests as a student.

Lakeshore school officials have not commented on Conway’s departure, but apparently were satisfied with this “athletic related” transfer.

Justin Brown

Brown left Lakeshore for Benton Harbor late last summer. Lakeshore formally protested the transfer with the MHSAA, alleging Benton Harbor of violating the “undue influence” portion of the MHSAA’s transfer rule.

Lakeshore contended last fall that Brown should be suspended for 180 days – a full school year – for this violation.

The MHSAA instead applied its 90-day suspension. 

But in doing so, it also placed Benton Harbor High School on two years’ probation and suspended Brown’s older brother, Jarren, from coaching for two years for violating the “undue influence” clause. 

Jarren Brown was alleged by Lakeshore to have recruited Justin to Benton Harbor, according to Benton Harbor Superintendent Shelly Walker in a news release last fall.

Crusciel said last fall that Benton Harbor rebutted all Lakeshore allegations, which may be why the younger brother only received a 90-day suspension as opposed to a 180-day suspension.

Family matters

A review of this controversy is timely, given three of the transfers are now eligible. It’s also appropriate as some still contend all four were illegally recruited by Benton Harbor.

That may very well be true. But before one can accuse Benton Harbor of recruiting, or accuse MHSAA of selectively enforcing its rules, a review of the family situations involved is warranted.

Jones’ parents divorced. Though it may be a convenient way to gain full-year eligibility, such emotional family issues shouldn’t be clouded by MHSAA transfer policy. To suggest otherwise is inappropriate.

Nichols’ uncle, Ramsey Nichols, is the current head basketball coach at Kalamazoo Central and is a former Benton Harbor head basketball coach. It is very doubtful that Uncle Ramsey unduly influenced his nephew into heading back to Benton Harbor.

But other relatives in Benton Harbor may have suggested the younger Nichols come back “home.”

Jarren Brown was an off-again, on-again presence with Benton Harbor basketball, and it is reasonable to assume discussions were had in a family setting about having Justin Brown transfer to Benton Harbor.

Conway’s transfer back to Benton Harbor was based more on an educational and environmental fit.

Kithier similarities

Where’s the line between family decisions and MHSAA policy? When, and how, should it be crossed?

The goings-on here in Berrien County last fall are similar to the current high-profile case on the other side of the state involving embattled Michigan State recruit Thomas Kithier.

Kithier, a senior, was found to be ineligible by the MHSAA for 180 days because his transfer from Macomb Dakota High School to Clarkston High School was found to be athletically-motivated because he would’ve played on the same high school basketball team as a summer AAU teammate.

That’s a no-no, and Dakota cited it as the reason not to sign the Educational Transfer Form.

A family decision was made in the Kithier household, just like the a decision was reached with the Brown family. The old school, Dakota (Lakeshore) protested the move. 

But the punishment was different, because the Kithier violation was clear and evident. It wasn’t as clear-cut in the Brown case. Indeed, other AAU-related transfers were not ruled on by the MHSAA. But often, schools simply don’t protest the transfers.

The MHSAA’s self-policing system is far from perfect. But is there one out there, one that can pass legal muster once it is challenged in court? Athletic transfers remain a nationwide problem.

As for Kithier, he and his legal team failed last week to convince a federal judge to issue a temporary restraining order of the MHSAA’s suspension.

During all that, now-former Clarkston Superintendent Rod Rock – who was very outspoken about what he saw as Kithier being unfairly treated by the MHSAA and Dakota – resigned due to having what he described as an “inappropriate relationship” with a 2017 Clarkston graduate after graduation.

The hypocrisy in Clarkston is appalling.

Conclusions

Any accusations toward the MHSAA about selectively enforcing its rules, or Benton Harbor recruiting athletes from Lakeshore and Berrien Springs, rings hollow in three of these four athletes’ cases simply because their previous schools approved the transfers.

If there was blatant recruiting, then why weren’t the transfers challenged for three of the four students involved?

The fourth – Brown – received the standard 90 days because either Lakeshore couldn’t fully prove its case, or Benton Harbor was able to muck things up enough to not trigger the 180-day suspension.

This analysis is not meant to accuse or exonerate anybody involved. But there’s plenty here to suggest that all involved need to move on. 

We’ll see if that really happens.

Jason Mitchell is Sports Editor for The Herald-Palladium. Write to him at jmitchell@TheHP.com. Follow him on Twitter @HPJasonMitchell.