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Prime Time and Prime Prep

Discussion in 'OFF TOPIC' started by Prime Time, Aug 10, 2014.

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    Scroll down to read the NY Times article.
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    New York Times takes a closer look at Prime Prep
    Posted by Mike Florio on August 10, 2014

    [​IMG]Getty Images

    From time to time, the charter school co-founded by Hall of Fame cornerback Deion Sanders makes news. Rarely good news.

    From an alleged assault committed by Sanders to Sanders being fired to Sanders being rehired to Sanders being fired and rehired again to the charter school losing its charter, the signs of dysfunction have become obvious. But the force of Sanders’ celebrity and personality have managed to keep hope alive — and maybe even to keep him and others out of jail.

    That could change based on the examination of Prime Prep conducted by Michael Powell of the New York Times. It paints the picture of a guy who opted to parlay his brand into a vehicle for enhancing that brand via the accumulation of great young athletes. And maybe to make a little money along the way.

    For example, Powell reports that the original proposal for the charter school explained that Sanders’ company, PrimeTimePlayer, “shall introduce” the school to “its vast corporate circle of influence,” which was “not limited to C.E.O.s, C.F.O.s.” Of course, PrimeTimePlayer would keep 10 percent of the money raised as a fee, along with a monthly retainer ranging from $1,000 to $7,500.

    The charter was awarded, because Prime Time . . . Prime Time . . . Prime Time.

    “Sanders made himself available, and I was quite embarrassed by this, to pose for pictures and sign autographs for my colleagues on the board,” former Texas Board of Education member Michael Soto said regarding the charter approval process. “The financial planning was suspect; the curriculum design was nonexistent — it was laughable.”

    But the joke remains on anyone who thinks Prime Prep is dead. Powell explains that school officials have exhibited a “striking confidence” that the school will regain its charter via the appeal process. Sanders himself expressed optimism, via a bizarre interview he conducted with Powell.

    After failing to get Sanders through more traditional vehicles of communication, Powell attended a football practice and approached Sanders when it ended. Sanders insisted on having a witness, calling over friend and Prime Prep employee, Reginald Calhoun. Sanders also produced a recording device.

    “I asked about Prime Prep’s appeal,” Powell writes. “[Deion] turned to Calhoun and lectured him on what an uninformed question this was, as if Calhoun had asked it. I tried another question, and Sanders again lectured Calhoun on his stupidity. Then Sanders told me he was having a private conversation.

    “He turned and gave me a piercing stare, his megawatt [smile] gone cobalt. He walked off with a touch of swagger.”

    That swagger has taken Sanders far. At some point, it may no longer work. He hasn’t reached that point yet, and possibly never will.

    A Star-Powered School Sputters
    Prime Prep Academy, Founded by Deion Sanders, Comes Under Scrutiny

    AUG. 9, 2014

    [​IMG]
    Deion Sanders at a practice for Truth, a youth sports program he founded, at Prime Prep in Dallas. Credit Cooper Neill for The New York Times/Sports of The Times

    By MICHAEL POWELL

    DALLAS — A few years back, Deion Sanders, the Hall of Fame cornerback and N.F.L. commentator who still digs being called by the nickname Prime Time, was approached with a splendid business proposition.

    A partner suggested creating a Texas charter school. They would name it after Sanders: Prime Prep Academy. They would collect and mentor the finest male athletes in Texas and elsewhere and become a powerhouse.

    God only knows what business opportunities might come along, particularly if they could tap Sanders’s deep-pocketed backers, like the sports clothing manufacturer Under Armour, for which Sanders works as a brand ambassador.

    All went swimmingly. The Texas Board of Education fell over itself to accommodate Sanders. The coach of a small Christian school defected to Prime Prep and brought along his collection of nationally ranked basketball players, including Emmanuel Mudiay, a preternaturally talented, 6-foot-5-inch, 190-pound point guard.

    Just like that, Prime Prep went world class. It had a top-ranked basketball team, its games broadcast on ESPN.

    As for Prime Prep’s academics? Not so world class.

    A respected Texas nonprofit group has ranked Texas public schools. Prime Prep’s lower grades received an F. I could not find the grade for Prime Prep’s high school, so I called the nonprofit group.

    “Unfortunately,” a spokeswoman said, “we were unable to rank it due to missing data.”

    We’re accustomed to living in the shadow of the rotten tree that is major college sports. It’s almost refreshing that so many college administrators and coaches have dropped the pretense that recruits are more than underpaid young men and women in shorts, jerseys or shoulder pads.

    Now that rot has spread, its roots extending deep into high schools and even middle schools.

    There is the Nevada prep school created to field a basketball team and the players who switch high schools two or three times in four years. Last week, the top high school player in Michigan announced that he was transferring to a prep academy in the Napa Valley in California — although that school does not yet exist.

    Prime Prep offers baroque twists on this American sports tale. It features celebrity culture run amok and shoddy oversight of a charter school. Under Armour provides all of the school’s uniforms and practice equipment.

    There is the strange curlicue that is the high school career of Mudiay. Academics at Prime Prep are enough of a shambles that he might have been blocked from playing major college hoops. So he exited east, heading for the Guangdong Southern Tigers of the Chinese Basketball Association, where he will make $1.5 million before jumping to the N.B.A. in a year.

    The N.C.A.A. eligibility center’s staff members insisted they had examined Prime Prep’s academics in “granular detail.” They found some cause for concern but appear to have missed several boulders of evidence.

    Poor and working-class parents talked of academics but cherished most dearly Sanders’s promise that their sons would play and play, and with luck obtain scholarships and pro contracts. Okey Apkom, a dissident member of Prime Prep’s board, told me it was common knowledge that athletes received the grades they needed to keep their eligibility.

    [​IMG]
    A bench near Prime Prep’s football field. Sanders’s celebrity and connections aided the founding of the school. Credit Cooper Neill for The New York Times

    “The parents wanted a 2.5 G.P.A. so the kids could play,” he said. “And it happened.”

    There are deeper pools of darkness. Former Prime Prep staff members make credible accusations of violence and intimidation by Sanders and his hangers-on. In his reality show — “Deion’s Family Playbook,” on Oprah Winfrey’s television network — Sanders told his son that he was so angry that late report cards were threatening to make his athletes miss games that he had “locked up” with a Prime Prep administrator, although “I ain’t hit him.”

    He was technically correct. Witnesses said Sanders grabbed tight in his fists the collar of a school official, who fell to the floor. In another instance, Sanders was heard on a recordingobtained by The Dallas Observer — threatening his business partner, D. L. Wallace, because he had blocked Sanders from hiring coaches and from allowing him to recruit as he pleased.

    “I feel like throwing this chair and breaking your damn neck,” Sanders told him.

    Kimberly Carlisle, Prime Prep’s former executive director, twice tried to fire Sanders, who served as football coach, only to watch the board rehire him. The second time, she asked a 6-5, 300-pound friend to accompany her.

    Did you, I asked, feel scared? She paused a couple of beats and replied, “I would say there was not a culture of safety at that school.”

    Prime Prep’s fire could be extinguished. The Texas Education Agency announced last month that it would revoke the school’s charter after Prime Prep could not prove that it had used money for a school lunch program to serve meals to students.

    A local district attorney is investigating that one.

    School officials have appealed the revocation. Sanders, who spoke to me in a brief interview, and those officials exhibit a striking confidence that their school will experience a resurrection. The state education commissioner is a friend of Prime Prep’s new superintendent, who in turn is a planet in Sanders’s orbit.

    Despite the threat of imminent closing, enrollment at Prime Prep is up. As for the basketball team, Andre Johnson, a Sanders loyalist, assured me: “We’ll be top 10 in the nation again. No problem.”

    [​IMG]
    Kimberly Carlisle, a former Prime Prep executive director, said she had twice tried to fire Deion Sanders. Credit Cooper Neill for The New York Times

    In Texas, betting against Prime Time and Prime Prep is a precarious dice roll.

    “The high school was chaos,” Carlisle said. “Academics didn’t even play second fiddle. It was all about getting those athletes scholarships and contracts. You didn’t mess with Deion World.”

    Prime Prep was conceived in celebrity, its charter proposal offering a near satirical turn on edu-speak. The proposal mentioned “our training methods” and a “Leadership Studies Curriculum” without explaining the nature of that special sauce. Students, the proposal noted, would “model traits” such as “responsibility” and “courage.” Students would “become self-actualized.”

    Yes, well.

    After wading through 50 pages of that, I dialed up Michael Soto. A Harvard-educated Ph.D., he teaches American literature at Trinity University in San Antonio and sat on the Texas Board of Education when it approved the Prime Prep charter.

    You could practically hear him grimace. Sanders, he recalled, spoke as board members tossed adoring questions.

    “Sanders made himself available, and I was quite embarrassed by this, to pose for pictures and sign autographs for my colleagues on the board,” he said. “The financial planning was suspect; the curriculum design was nonexistent — it was laughable.”

    The proposal noted the school would rely on a Sanders company, PrimeTimePlayer, to raise money. Here the proposal’s language acquired a legend-in-his-own-mind quality: Sanders’s company “shall introduce” the school to “its vast corporate circle of influence,” which was “not limited to C.E.O.s, C.F.O.s.” PrimeTimePlayer would claim 10 percent of the money raised, as a commission, and collect a monthly retainer of $1,000 to $7,500.

    A majority of the board voted yes; Soto voted no.

    “It was Sanders’s celebrity status,” he said, “that got this proposal approved.”

    [​IMG]
    A practice for the Truth program at Prime Prep. Credit Cooper Neill for The New York Times

    For a more pungent assessment of the way Sanders and his partner ended up in proud possession of a charter school, turn to that recording obtained by The Dallas Observer, which together with The Dallas Morning News excavated a lot of the Prime Prep story. Two years ago, Sanders met with Wallace, his partner, who was paid $120,000 as the school’s executive director. Sanders got $40,000 as the coach and found that disparity humiliating.

    He decided to get real.

    “You don’t even really know how we got this school,” he told Wallace. “It ain’t because all these inflated words and wonderful things we said; it was another way.

    “Senators, political leaders that you hooked me up with, that you put me down with — that’s how we got the school. You’re talking about a nigger sitting up there that was an athlete who didn’t graduate, another nigger sitting up there saying he’s the president, that ain’t graduate nothing, and we got a school. Think about that, man.

    “How in the world do you think we got a school?”

    Their new school bounced into the public eye when the basketball coach at Grace Preparatory Academy, a Christian school in Arlington, Tex., defected to Prime Prep with his college-ready talent.

    That was quite a haul, and you imagine Grace Prep officials were not amused. It is most important, Grace Prep’s website notes, to “aid in the spiritual growth of our student-athletes.”

    Winning, however, seems not to hurt. Year after year, Grace collected a miraculous cache of athletes. And sometimes its players and supporters have been investigated, and sanctioned once for recruiting violations.

    From dust to dust and all that.

    The defections set off a tempest. Texas public school rules prohibit coaches from recruiting players from rival schools.

    [​IMG]
    Emmanuel Mudiay, shooting, attended Prime Prep but left for a Chinese league because of concerns over his collegiate academic eligibility.Credit Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images

    Sanders and Wallace journeyed to the state capital, Austin, to plead their case. When it appeared that the players would be forced to sit out, the Prime Prep founders announced that they would pull out of the University Interscholastic League.

    That did not please the school’s teachers. The withdrawal meant the school could not field a debate team, a choir, a band.

    Whatever.

    Prime Prep played in basketball tournaments in Florida and West Virginia, and finished the season 37-2, ranked No. 6 in USA Today’s Super 25. Mysteries abounded. Carlisle and Apkom, the Prime Prep board member, have no clue how the school paid for the travel, nor what the salaries were for the head coaches and the many assistants. In a recording, Sanders, who is wealthy, said he had taken his Prime Prep salary and paid stipends to the coaches.

    Slowly but surely, the wheels came off this car. Last fall, after Carlisle was hired as executive director, she walked the high school campus. She saw cafeteria workers sitting idle while parents came in with pizza and fried chicken and sold it to the students. Sanders’s entourage, men in sweats and Under Armour athletic gear, clustered around the gym and wandered into and out of the school without signing in.

    “They told me they had the right to be there because they were friends of Deion,” she said. “It was inmates running the asylum.”

    She walked over to talk to Sanders. He looked at her and said into his cellphone: “Yah, man, I guess she thinks she’s going to tell me something. Yah, man.”

    With that, she recalled, he turned his back on her.

    “We need you to leave,” she said.

    He turned to her, still on his phone. “I’m not going to leave. Who do you think you are? You’re going to be fired.”

    Weeks later, after a tense school board meeting, Carlisle walked out to find the back window of her car smashed in. The next week, she was fired.

    I called T. Christopher Lewis, the board president and an entertainment lawyer. He talked of the school’s many struggles and noted he had fired Sanders the first time.

    Lewis also rehired him. His second thoughts looked odd, he acknowledged, but the school is named after the man, and Sanders had not been charged with a felony assault in the case of grabbing the school official, just a misdemeanor.

    “Deion is welcome in some capacity,” Lewis said, “and we have to really push ourselves to best utilize what he has to offer. He’s got a unique insight on what an academic, athletic-based charter school should look like.”

    It is not clear that a school of that description could pass legal muster in Texas. Soto, the former member of the state Board of Education, said, “Football is the second religion of Texas, but it’s not legal to make sports talent a condition for getting into a charter school.”

    I had so much to chat about with Sanders. I traveled to his grand home spread in Prosper, Tex., with its Moroccan columns and palm trees and a football field out back with banana-yellow goal posts. I sent him an email and tried his Twitter account.

    No go.

    So I went to the Prime Prep high school campus one evening to watch Sanders run his Truth sports teams, which require athletes to maintain at least a B average. More than 100 boys practiced hard for two hours, much of the time in a soaking rain.

    Deion, trim and muscular in his mid-40s, was ebullient, flashing that megawatt smile and running about the field in his red sneakers and his black baseball cap turned backward. He ran the practice with brio, getting down in ready crouches with little boys.

    “We appreciate your patience, your kindness,” he told parents at the end. “We’re a team. We’re a family.”

    Deion?

    I began to introduce myself. He held up his hand. “I want a witness,” he said, signaling to Reginald Calhoun, who works in finance at Prime Prep, to come listen. Then Sanders reached under his thigh guard and pulled out a recorder.

    He told me a reporter had tried to pass himself off as a Truth parent earlier in the day. I assured him I had arrived subterfuge-free.

    I asked about Prime Prep’s appeal. He turned to Calhoun and lectured him on what an uninformed question this was, as if Calhoun had asked it. I tried another question, and Sanders again lectured Calhoun on his stupidity. Then Sanders told me he was having a private conversation.

    He turned and gave me a piercing stare, his megawatt gone cobalt. He walked off with a touch of swagger.

    Prime Time was over. Prime Prep, maybe not.

    Email: powellm@nytimes.com

    Zach Schonbrun contributed reporting.
     
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