Colleges ' great unknown

An international influx of athletes brings confusion.

Published October 31, 2006

ST. PETERSBURG - Luke Sheekey was living his dream.

After toiling for two years in odd jobs like installing cable, the 22-year-old from London landed a scholarship to study and play soccer at Eckerd College.

Sheekey, a short but slick forward, was the Tritons' leading scorer and, in early October, propelled the program to its first-ever win over a top-ranked team.

But now, Sheekey, like several other international athletes, finds himself in an eligibility quagmire. He played a few games with pro players for a reserve club in England four years ago, an NCAA Division II rules violation.

Sheekey never knew. Neither did Eckerd, which said it unsuccessfully asked the English club for information in August.

Last week, Eckerd was one of five Sunshine State Conference schools forced to forfeit games for using ineligible players.

At least three - Eckerd, Saint Leo and Tampa - fielded an athlete whose association or participation with an overseas club put them in violation.

The influx of international athletes to American colleges and the murky situations they present have spurred the NCAA to develop its own International Clearing House.

The system, which goes into effect next month, will effectively take the onus of determining athletes' eligibility off the colleges and put it on the NCAA.

'One of everyone'

Seldom before has the Star-Spangled Banner seemed so out of place.

Twenty-two men's soccer players from Eckerd and Barry University stood at midfield before a mid-October match. Their hands behind their backs, several stared blankly at the American flag as the anthem played.

Forgive them if they didn't know the words: Twelve were not born on U.S. soil. In fact, Barry, a private school in Miami, boasts 10 players from 10 countries.

"We're the International House of Pancakes," Barry coach Steve McCrath said with a chuckle. "We've got one of everyone."

The preponderance of international athletes has been sparked by a corresponding growth in foreign-based recruiting services.

All over the globe, such companies serve as a one-stop shop for coaches: They scout athletes, help them secure visas, prepare them for admission tests and, in some cases, teach them to do laundry and set up bank accounts.

But buyers beware: Some services, which charge athletes between $1,000-3,000, pack less punch, merely peppering coaches with spam-like e-mails.

"This is a big business for international students," said Scott Treibly, college placement director for IMG.

"The international students need the help more than anyone, because they can't drive to the University of Florida and take a look at it - they're 5,000 miles away, and they speak a different language.

"For a lack of a better term, this is very foreign to them - and on a basic level, we can explain it."

Club team favoritism

Eckerd soccer standout Kashif Siddiqi came to America to flee discrimination.

Siddiqi, who grew up in England and is of Pakistani descent, said he was one of many minorities who fell victim to favoritism on club teams, which jeopardized his goal of becoming one of the first Asian professionals.

"In America, people don't look at me like I'm an Asian," he said. "They look at me like a footballer."

St. Petersburg College volleyball player Adriana Vianna dos Santos arrived here two summers ago "by accident."

The native Brazilian was teaching at two elementary schools near Sao Paulo. At night, she would board a bus for the 90-minute ride to club practice.

In Brazil, scholarships are few and far between. If you're not one of the top 90 or so players who land on pro teams, you can't survive on the sport alone.

And if you're 27, like Santos was, well, "I thought I was way too old," she said.

Enter Brazilian businessman Gelson Kawassaki. The 29-year-old volleyball coordinator for DPF Sports & Exchange met Santos in 2005 at one of his tryouts in Sao Paulo. Santos accepted a late invite from a friend; the spur-of-the-moment decision soon changed her life.

Like others who run international recruiting services, Kawassaki spoke from experience: he played tennis for Winthrop (N.C.) from 1999-2002.

Soon thereafter, he joined the nine-member staff at Sao Paulo-based DPF, which has helped 450 Brazilian athletes - in volleyball, tennis and swimming - land at American colleges.

They charge athletes a $2,000 flat fee, but in cases like Santos - who knew no English - the company does everything but sign the letter of intent. It locates schools, pepper coaches with spliced-up film or written profiles, provide tutors and prepare visas.

All athletes have to do is pick.

"Gelson called me while I was at work one day and said, 'We've found some schools,' " Santos said. "It was either Missouri or Florida."

Since Kawassaki found St. Petersburg College online three years ago - and subsequently formed a relationship with coach Scott White - four Brazilian athletes have come through, including three on this year's team.

The marriage has been strong for White: Santos and Brazilian teammates Regiane Silva and Heloisa Jaquim dos Santos are big reasons why SPC is back in the state tournament.

"Many of the coaches who are not in big-time programs can't recruit the top Americans," Kawassaki said. "So they have to go overseas to get the same caliber of player - and there's tons in Brazil."

An anxious wait

For now, Sheekey is playing the waiting game.

He rides his yellow bike around campus and eats with teammates at "the caf."

But, at times, a helplessness comes over him as the NCAA debates how many games Sheekey will sit out next year.

The International Clearing House, many hope, will take care of this problem in the future.

The ICH, pushed by the SSC and mulled over for two years, will gather competitive and academic information from prospective athletes, determine eligibility and serve as an insurance policy for schools, SSC commissioner Michael Marcil said.

Under the new system, Marcil says, schools caught playing with ineligible athletes won't be forced to forfeit games, given they had no knowledge of it.

SSC school administrators aren't taking chances. ADs from each school will meet in December at Eckerd to share case studies, Eckerd AD Bob Fortosis said.

The dreams of athletes like Sheekey, living in limbo thousands of miles from home, depend on it.

"I'm a soccer player," he said. "I just want to play soccer."

Joe Smith can be reached at joesmith@sptimes.com or at (727) 893-8129.



By the numbers

450: Athletes sent from DPF Sports & Exchange Sao Paulo, Brazil since 2001.

$1,300: Typical fee for Sports-Ed, a Nottingham, England-based recruiting service

200: Scouts worldwide used by recruiting service, National Scouting Report

9: English soccer players on Eckerd College men's team

10,488: Non-U.S. resident athletes competing in Division I-II-III athletics in 2004-05 year.