Prep school coach’s outburst exposes dark side of international recruiting

Screengrab via video obtained by NBC Sports
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“I control transcripts. I control where you go next. It could be back to Haiti, motherf*****. That’s how easy it is for me.”

That sentence is a brief snippet of a 3:27 recording of a conversation between Mike Woodbury, the CEO of Nation Christian Academy in Port St. Lucie, Florida, and a Haitian basketball player from the school named Marvens Petion. The audio was leaked on Tuesday night before spreading like wildfire through the basketball community.

“Now I control everything,” Woodbury later said, continuing a tirade that he claims lasted 35 minutes. “I just want you to really know that. I’m going to f*** you in your a** next time you talk out of line. I’m going to take everything from you. I’m going to end everything you’ve ever had.”

According to Woodbury, Petion had been a problem, skipping class, getting caught with alcohol, theft and even an attempt to extort people within the school all while living with Woodbury and his family. Petion denied the allegations to Stadium, saying that Woodbury’s outburst was the result of the player finding a damaging conversation between Woodbury and another woman, which he took to the Head of School.

Either way, Petion transferred out of Nation Christian Academy last week — two days after the conversation was recorded — and headed to West Oaks, where he found that he had a 1.4 GPA on his transcript.

“He changed everything,” Petion told Stadium. He declined to comment further when reached by NBC Sports.

“I’m the one thing you don’t want to cross,” Woodbury said in the video, “because I’m dirtiest, baddest motherf***** on this earth.”



The story here isn’t Mike Woodbury.

He is, to say the least, not a nice person, according to every single source that I’ve spoken with in the last 24 hours that has come in contact with him at some point in time.

“He treats people in a way no one should be treated,” one coach from the prep school ranks said.

“Definition of a Napolean’s complex,” said a small college coach in New England that recruited players from Woodbury’s MBNation (Maine) AAU program in the past. He left that program to head to the prep ranks in Florida a couple of years ago. “Least surprising thing in the world that something like this finally emerged on him.”

The reason, according to a third source, that Woodbury had to make the move to Florida to run a prep school was that he was “essentially removed from every AAU tournament in New England” because of the way that he behaved with his players, with their parents, with tournament organizers and basically everyone that he came into contact with.

There are bad people in every walk of life, and Woodbury might just be one of those people.

So the story here isn’t that a morally-inept person threatened a kid that was tired of putting up with his abusive behavior. That happens more than you care to realize. The story is how that person managed to gain this much control over the future of a high schooler just looking to make his way in American basketball.

And it starts with an I-20.

Because those are the “golden ticket” for prep schools, according to a source intimately familiar with the inner workings of how these pop-up schools take advantage of international athletes. NBC Sports granted him anonymity in exchange for full transparency.

“Form I-20” is a certificate of eligibility for non-immigrant student status. Put another way, it is what allows a foreign exchange students to study at a school in the United States. There are only certain schools that have the ability to get I-20s — known as Student and Exchange Visitor Program (SEVP) certified schools — so what prep school coaches will do is target small, private (non-taxpayer funded) SEVP-certified schools that are already NCAA-certified and, oftentimes, struggling financially.

That’s when the negotiating starts.

These prep school teams often aren’t all that different from AAU teams, but because NCAA rules dictate that a player can only be recruited between September and March if he is a member of a scholastic team, they need to be associated with a school. Regardless of what the teams then end up getting called, as long as all of the members of the basketball team attend the same school, it is considered scholastic.

That’s when the deals are struck.

In exchange for access to classes that will be approved in the NCAA portal and the ability to be considered a scholastic entity, the person behind the basketball program will find some way to ensure that money is coming into the school.

Sometimes, it’s in exchange for a cut-rate on the tuition for the members of the basketball program. Sometimes, it’s for a piece of the shoe company money that the prep school coach can bring in. Sometimes, the coach will get, say, eight scholarship players — the guys that are actually good — while enrolling the same number of players that pay full tuition — the kids who have family money and think they’re good enough to matter. Sometimes it results in players staying in actual dorm rooms with coaches that are truly there to help the kids, but all too often you hear the horror stories about players that are left in houses with no food, no heat and no way out. (You don’t want to hear the stories if it turns out the kid is not as good as people thought they would be.) Sometimes these kids actually spend time in a classroom, other times they — or someone using their login — are taking those classes online.

As the saying goes, bad basketball is a billion-dollar business.

What the coach will then do is turnaround and sell a program rate well above what he’ll be paying out of pocket. If the school is charging, saying, $5,000 per player for tuition, room and board, the coach will sell a package to the handlers for these international players for $15,000, pocketing the profits that are leftover.

“Buy low, sell high,” the source said.

Some might call that business.

“Some call it corruption,” he said. Or visa fraud and human trafficking.

“These schools exist because the kids can’t pass the material in brick and mortar schools, traditional schools where everything happens on campus, where the dorms are on campus and they play for the name of the school.

“The truth is these kids aren’t taking classes, they’re paying for NCAA eligibility. These schools started because they place higher emphasis on athletic training and less emphasis on academics. If someone is having a hard time passing classes everyday, [this is where they go.] They’re going to advertise 6-to-1 teacher ratio and talk about how everyone graduates, but the reality is everyone is in on it.”

And this is where someone like Woodbury can gain total control over international kids, particularly if they own the school; Woodbury claims he is the CEO and owns Nation Christian Academy, which, according to their website, was known as Barnabas Christian Academy until this year.

For starters, the school will control the I-20. If that I-20 is cancelled, Homeland Security can deport them. If this happens, it’s unlikely that kid will ever get an I-20 again.

“All the kids know the I-20 is their ticket,” the source said.

The school also controls the player’s transcript, and it’s far from unheard of in the coaching industry for prep school coaches to threaten to make a player ineligible if that player doesn’t end up where the prep coach wants him to go.

So when Petion tells Woodbury that he wants to transfer out of the program, he knows the risk he’s taking.

Woodbury can change his grades. He can cancel the I-20 and make Petion’s presence in this country illegal.

Does Woodbury sound like the kind of person that would do something so spiteful and heinous, ruin a kid’s life because the kid didn’t want to play for him?


In a statement released after Woodbury’s tantrum went viral, the CEO of Nation Christian Academy claimed that he did not coach the basketball team.

Videos obtained by NBC Sports show that as of Dec. 2017, Woodbury was on the sidelines coaching this team. He is listed as the head coach of the program on MaxPreps.

I bring that up because Woodbury is precisely who the NCAA has decided deserves the power in the world of recruiting. The changes to the recruiting calendar that were implemented with the specific intention of putting more power in the hands of high school coaches.

There are a lot of good, honest, hardworking high school coaches that are in this business for the strict betterment of the kids in their program, just like many of the men running AAU programs around the country are doing it for the love of the game and because they want to help kids in their community better their station in life.

There are also bad AAU coaches who want nothing more than to profit off of the kids under their control.

The same can be said about Woodbury.

And he is exactly who the NCAA wants to give more power to.

At least AAU coaches aren’t threatening to deport teenagers.

NCAA steering farther and farther away from harsh penalties

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The days of postseason bans and crippling scholarship reductions to punish schools for breaking NCAA rules appear to be winding down.

Memphis was placed on three years of probation earlier this week with a public reprimand and fined for NCAA violations related to the recruitment and short college career of James Wiseman, who is about to start his third season with the Golden State Warriors. The NCAA also wrapped up an investigation of Air Force football for breaking the COVID-19 recruiting quiet period.

No postseason bans or scholarship reductions in either case. The Independent Accountability Review Panel, the NCAA’s outside arm of enforcement, said in its decision in the Memphis case that it did not want to punish current athletes.

That sentiment is widespread in college athletics these days, even with millions of dollars suddenly flowing to athletes from various sources for their celebrity endorsements amid concerns over improper inducements. In fact, it is on the way to being codified: Last month, the Division I Board of Directors adopted three proposals to change the infractions process.

The board also committed to “identifying appropriate types of penalties and modifying current penalty ranges, including identifying potential alternative penalties to postseason bans.”

Trying to predict what those alternatives will be is difficult, but if the goal is to avoid harming athletes and others who were not involved in the violations the options are limited.

“I emphatically believe it’s the wrong direction to go,” said Nebraska law professor Jo Potuto, who spent nine years on the NCAA’s Committee on Infractions in the late 1990s and early 2000s.

“If you’re going to deter, the punishment has to fit the offense, right?” Potuto added. “You’re not going to deter serious violations with penalties that are not perceived to be really serious.”

Since January 2020, there have been at least 45 major infractions cases decided by the NCAA. Of those, at least 15 involved Level I allegations, the most serious and those carrying the most severe penalties; six cases resulted in some kind of postseason ban, with four of them self-imposed.

The Memphis case went through the IARP, which was created in response to the FBI’s investigation of college basketball corruption but is now being discontinued. Sunsetting the IARP was among several recommendations put forth by the NCAA’s Division I Transformation Committee earlier this year and recently adopted by the board.

As college sports moves toward less centralized governance by the NCAA and deregulation in general, the hope is to create a more streamlined enforcement process.

If justice is swift, the thinking goes, it is more likely to be applied fairly.

“The reality is the current system is broken,” said Atlantic Coast Conference Commissioner Jim Phillips, a member of the transformation committee. “I think everyone in the association, in the enterprise, understands it. When (an investigation) takes the amount of time that it does now and you start to penalize young men and women that were high school, if not middle school-age (when the violation occurred), it’s not an effective process.”

The IARP is still handling cases stemming from the FBI probe involving Louisville, Arizona, Kansas and LSU. Those have been in the NCAA enforcement pipeline for years. A related case against Oklahoma State did not go through IARP and the Cowboys did end up with a postseason ban.

David Ridpath, a professor at Ohio University and former compliance director for several schools, said even though the IARP failed, NCAA enforcement would be best handled by an independent organization.

“No system is perfect, but if you’re going to have an enforcement system at the end of the day you need to provide basic due-process protections and then you have to be able to consistently punish people,” he said.

In the Memphis case, Wiseman received $11,500 from Hardaway in 2017 while Hardaway was coach at a local high school. Hardaway was hired as Memphis’ coach in March 2018, and Wiseman committed to the Tigers in November 2018.

The NCAA accused Memphis of four Level I and two Level II violations, including lack of institutional control, head coach responsibility and failure to monitor. In the past, those types of allegations could strike fear into athletic directors but probation and fines seem much more likely to be the outcome now instead of the sweeping scholarship sanctions, vacated victories and postseason ban that Southern California received in 2010 for the Reggie Bush improper benefits case. Those penalties set USC football back years.

In the end, the IARP essentially reduced the charges against Memphis and cleared Hardaway of wrongdoing.

While the NCAA is losing sway in the wake of last year’s Supreme Court ruling, with more power being shifted to its member conferences, it also remains clear the schools still want the association to handle enforcement.

But what exactly is being enforced?

Athletes can now be paid for endorsement and sponsorship deals and college sports is still waiting on and hoping for help from federal lawmakers to regulate name, image and likeness compensation.

Plus, as revenue skyrockets for schools at the top of major college sports, the NCAA is trending toward fewer restrictions on what financial benefits can be provided to athletes.

“Until we have clarity and certainty on what schools and boosters and athletes can and can’t do, I think many recognize that it’s dangerous to hand down significant punishments when it’s not clear what you can and can’t do,” said Gabe Feldman, director of the sports law program at Tulane. “And I think unless you have clear rules, it’s hard to harsh punishment.”

Still, punishments directed at schools (fines) and coaches (suspensions) could become steeper and longer, Feldman said.

Potuto said with so much money flowing into the top of college athletics, it is doubtful fines could be large enough to be a true deterrent. While she understands the desire to not have current athletes pay for the sins of previous regimes, loosened transfer rules could mitigate the potential harm.

“I will make one prediction: If there is a move to impose penalties much less frequently in five years there is going to be a move to put them back in,” Potuto said.

Kentucky moves scrimmage to Eastern Kentucky for flood relief

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LEXINGTON, Ky. — Kentucky will play its annual Blue-White men’s basketball scrimmage in Eastern Kentucky to benefit victims of the devastating summer floods.

The school announced that the Oct. 22 event at Appalachian Wireless Arena in Pikeville will feature a pregame Fan Fest. Ticket proceeds will go through Team Eastern Kentucky Flood Relief.

Wildcat players will also participate in a community service activity with local organizations in the relief effort.

Kentucky coach John Calipari said the team was excited to play for Eastern Kentucky fans and added, “We hope we can provide a temporary escape with basketball and community engagement.”

The scrimmage traditionally is held at Rupp Arena. It will occur eight days after its Big Blue Madness public workout at Rupp.

Kentucky’s Tionna Herron recovering from open-heart surgery

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LEXINGTON, Ky. — Kentucky coach Kyra Elzy says freshman Tionna Herron is recovering from open-heart surgery to correct a structural abnormality.

The 6-foot-4 post player learned of her condition after arriving at school in June and received other opinions before surgery was recommended. Senior trainer Courtney Jones said in a release that Herron underwent surgery Aug. 24 at Texas Children’s Hospital in Houston and is recovering at home in DeSoto, Texas.

Elzy said Herron “is the definition of a warrior” and all are grateful to be on the other side of the player’s surgery. Herron is expected back on campus early next month and will continue rehabilitation until she’s cleared to return to normal activity.

“Her will and determination to eventually return to the court is inspiring, and it’s that `game-on’ attitude that is what makes her such a perfect fit in our program,” Elzy said in a release. “We are so thrilled for Tionna’s return to our locker room; it’s not the same without our full team together.”

Herron committed to Kentucky during last fall’s early signing period, rated as a four-star prospect and a top-70 player in last year’s class. Kentucky won last year’s Southeastern Conference Tournament and reached the NCAA Tournament’s first round.

Emoni Bates charged with 2 felonies

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SUPERIOR TOWNSHIP, Mich — Emoni Bates, a former basketball prodigy who transferred to Eastern Michigan from Memphis, was charged with two felonies after police found a gun in a car during a traffic stop.

The 18-year-old Bates failed to stop at an intersection Sunday night and a search turned up the weapon, said Derrick Jackson, a spokesman for the Washtenaw County sheriff’s office.

Defense attorney Steve Haney told The Associated Press that the vehicle and the gun didn’t belong to Bates.

“I hope people can reserve judgment and understand there’s a presumption of innocence,” Haney said. “This was not his vehicle. This was not his gun. … We’re still gathering facts, too.”

Bates was charged with carrying a concealed weapon and altering identification marks on a firearm. He was released after his lawyer entered a not guilty plea. Bates’ next court hearing is Oct. 6.

“This is his first brush with the law,” Haney said in court. “He poses no threat or risk to society.”

Less than a month ago, the 6-foot-9 Bates transferred to Eastern Michigan to play for his hometown Eagles. Bates averaged nearly 10 points a game last season as a freshman at Memphis, where he enrolled after reclassifying to skip a year of high school and join the class of 2021.

“We are aware of a situation involving one of our student athletes,” EMU spokesman Greg Steiner said. “We are working to gather more details and will have further comment when more information is available.”

Bates was the first sophomore to win the Gatorade national player of the year award in high school basketball in 2020, beating out Cade Cunningham and Evan Mobley. Detroit drafted Cunningham No. 1 overall last year, two spots before Cleveland took Mobley in the 2021 NBA draft.

Bates committed to playing for Tom Izzo at Michigan State two years ago, later de-committed and signed with Memphis. Bates played in 18 games for the Tigers, who finished 22-11 under Penny Hardaway. Bates missed much of the season with a back injury before appearing in Memphis’ two NCAA Tournament games.

In 2019, as a high school freshman, the slender and skilled guard led Ypsilanti Lincoln to a state title and was named Michigan’s Division 1 Player of the Year by The Associated Press. His sophomore season was cut short by the pandemic and he attended Ypsi Prep Academy as a junior, his final year of high school.

UConn to pay Kevin Ollie another $3.9 million over firing

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STORRS, Conn. — UConn announced Thursday it has agreed to pay former men’s basketball coach Kevin Ollie another $3.9 million to settle discrimination claims surrounding his 2018 firing.

The money is in addition to the more than $11.1 million in back salary Ollie has already been paid after an arbitrator ruled in January that he was improperly fired under the school’s agreement with its professor’s union.

“I am grateful that we were able to reach agreement,” Ollie said in a statement Thursday. “My time at UConn as a student-athlete and coach is something I will always cherish. I am pleased that this matter is now fully and finally resolved.”

Ollie, a former UConn point guard who guided the Huskies to a 127-79 record and the 2014 national championship in six seasons as head coach, was let go after two losing seasons. UConn also stopped paying him under his contract, citing numerous NCAA violations in terminating the deal.

In 2019, the NCAA placed UConn on probation for two years and Ollie was sanctioned individually for violations, which the NCAA found occurred between 2013 and 2018. Ollie’s attorneys, Jacques Parenteau and William Madsen, accused UConn of making false claims to the NCAA for the purpose of firing Ollie “with cause.”

The school had argued that Ollie’s transgressions were serious and that his individual contract superseded those union protections.

Ollie’s lawyers had argued that white coaches, including Hall-of-Famers Jim Calhoun and women’s coach Geno Auriemma, had also committed NCAA violations, without being fired, and indicated they were planning to file a federal civil rights lawsuit.

The school and Ollie said in a joint statement Thursday they were settling “to avoid further costly and protracted litigation.”

Both sides declined to comment further.

Ollie, who faced three years of restrictions from the NCAA on becoming a college basketball coach again, is currently coaching for Overtime Elite, a league that prepares top prospects who are not attending college for the pros.