How A Bootleg Prep School Profited By Ripping Teens With NBA Dreams
by Foster LLP, on News
By Luke Cyphers and Teri Thompson
During his first few days in jail, Mumin Tunc folded the limbs of his 7-foot-tall teenage frame as best he could and sat on his cell mattress with his back glued to the wall. He barely slept. Accused criminals filled the cells around him at the York County detention facility in York, S.C. Some were there for petty crimes such as credit-card fraud and shoplifting. Others faced harsher charges: Domestic violence. Carjacking. Armed robbery. Attempted murder. There were two of those.
Tunc, meanwhile, all 195 pounds of him, was no threat to anyone, save for opponents on the basketball court trying to shoot over him. People around him loved him—“the nicest kid you’ll ever meet,” says his former coach John Carey. Tunc, 19, had come to the U.S. from his native Turkey more than two years earlier, but he still struggled with English. Even in Turkish, he stuttered. He suffered from debilitating shyness at times, and his height made fading into the background impossible.
His height was also the chief reason he was in the States. Like thousands of other young athletes from the U.S. and overseas, he was attending an American prep school, in his case 22ft Academy in Anderson, S.C., in hopes of showing his potential to college-basketball scouts. Since 2013, when a burly, fast-talking Euro-league basketball agent from England named Mike Rawson launched 22ft Academy in the U.S., well over 100 players had paid as much as $26,000 a year for the chance to practice and play for one of 22ft’s three teams.
Some of those players, like Mississippi State’s Eli Wright and South Carolina’s Sedee Keita, ended up on college squads. Tunc wound up in federal custody. And now Rawson, 22ft.’s founder, has followed suit. On Nov. 1, federal agents arrested Rawson and his wife Brenda in their Beaufort County, S.C., home on charges of visa fraud in connection with 22ft, where Tunc played last year. The Rawsons entered not-guilty pleas in federal court in Greenville, S.C., Nov. 15, upon the release of a six-page indictment that alleges they conspired to violate U.S. law in starting the U.S. branch of their basketball-academy business.
Tunc’s experience, and the story of 22ft Academy, shows just how much can go wrong in America’s newest venue for athlete exploitation—the bootleg prep school. A year-long Fusion investigation into prep-school basketball reveals this mini-industry, which feeds increasing numbers of striving athletes to the hungry maw of big-time college and professional sports, is far too often a con game.
Mumin Tunc came here for an education, and thanks to 22ft Academy, he certainly got one—just not the one he expected.
In March, Tunc was found to be “out of status” by immigration authorities; he was in the country on an expired Form I-20, the document the federal government requires of all international students here on student visas. On March 28, Department of Homeland Security officers came to his coach Carey’s house in Anderson, where Tunc stayed after the basketball season ended. The DHS Immigrations and Customs Enforcement agents questioned the teen briefly. Then Tunc was jailed alongside violent felony suspects in South Carolina. Seven days later, authorities transferred Tunc to the Stewart Detention Center, a private prison that doubles as a federal immigration detention facility in Lumpkin, Ga. Stewart has been called “the black hole” of America’s immigration system; Tunc spent nine days there, wondering whether he would be deported.
Now Rawson faces questions about his own future in the United States. The case brought by the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Greenville alleges Rawson and his wife lied on their applications for U.S. work visas; that Mike Rawson forged the signature of the parent of two 22ft players in an effort to set up a bogus business address in Holland; and that Brenda Rawson told academy players to lie to government investigators about their living conditions. The government alleges the Rawsons conspired to lie about their plans for 22ft in the U.S. to procure an L-1 visa, which requires a viable parent company in another country. The 22ft Academy investigation—which included Homeland Security, ICE and State Department agents working in Europe and the U.S.—highlights the increasing government scrutiny of these bootleg prep schools, and in some ways echoes the massive NCAA basketball scandal that broke this fall. An FBI investigation led to indictments of several college assistant coaches for funneling under-the-table cash, some apparently from sneaker company reps, to lure elite recruits to their campuses. In the prep school world, however, the players aren’t being bribed with six-figure cash payments to play college ball; they and their families instead do most of the paying, up to tens of thousands of dollars a year, for “exposure,” the mere chance to be seen by college recruiters and to shore up necessary academic credentials.
The experiences of Tunc and his teammates at 22ft Academy illuminate a largely unregulated world that has, like its college counterpart, recently become the focus of law-enforcement probes, not only at 22ft in South Carolina, but also in West Virginia, Georgia, North Carolina and New Jersey. More than a dozen players interviewed by The Naked Truth, as well as their family members, from both the U.S. and abroad report being ripped off and even extorted by prep schools or academies, and forced to live in squalor. Some have been left homeless, or, like Tunc, jailed or deported. Many pay exorbitant fees for academic courses that are often worthless or don’t even exist, jeopardizing their NCAA eligibility and, in the case of international players, putting them at risk of violating immigration laws.
Rawson opened his business four years ago promising to meld the best aspects of European club-sports training with the American scholastic-sports system. For a time, the plan appeared to work, with some 22ft players getting college scholarships and the program competing well against some of the top sports academies in the country. But those appearances were deceiving. By the 2016-17 academic year, what 22ft had delivered, besides Tunc’s jail stay, was a line of angry players and parents who claim Rawson conned them.
Perhaps the angriest in that line is Tunc, who is now back in Turkey. (Tunc declined a sitdown interview with Fusion, but corresponded over Facebook.) “I went to jail because of [Rawson],” Tunc said. “He said this I-20 is good to go.”
In his only on-the-record interview with Fusion in July, Rawson denied any intentional wrongdoing in Tunc’s case, calling it a “clerical error” on the part of schools that should have transferred his paperwork. “Should we have overseen it?” he asked. “I think we should have been more diligent.”
Since his arrest, Rawson and his attorney, Matthew J. Kappel, have declined to comment on the federal charges or on follow-up questions about 22ft. The indictment alleges Rawson “did not require regular school attendance, allowed students to take online courses in violation of their visas, and allowed students to transfer repeatedly without being properly sponsored on an updated Form I-20.” The government further alleges that Rawson, “in procuring assistant coaches from Europe, told them to lie in interviews with immigration authorities.”
Mike and Brenda Rawson were released on $50,000 bond each and were placed under home detention and fitted with ankle bracelets. Rawson’s legal woes aren’t limited to his arrest; they include a September default judgment against him for more than $17,000 for his failure to pay a uniform supplier, and an ongoing small-claims suit from the parent of a former 22ft player who claims her son was bitten by a venomous spider while living in 22ft housing and had to leave the academy before the 2016-17 season started.
A few months before his arrest, the man who once promised to build a youth-sports institution as grand as the world-famous IMG Academy admitted simply to having a bad stretch. “Crap year,” Rawson said. “Full stop.”
For much of the 20th century, the American path in basketball was fairly simple: The best athletes would play for their local public, private, or parochial school team and get spotted by college coaches, who would offer the teenagers a scholarship. If the players stood out as collegians, they would sign a professional contract.
Those pro stars emerged from a system designed as an extracurricular outlet for regular kids. “Sports participation is embedded within the educational system,” says Deborah Moore, an associate commissioner for the Ohio High School Athletic Association, which oversees more than 400,000 students, the vast majority of whom will never play college or pro sports. “It’s not a club-related system. It’s not for the elite. It’s for everyone.”
That model has been severely disrupted. Commercialization inflated college sports revenues in football and basketball, creating crazed competition for talented athletes. Some of those athletes didn’t qualify academically for college. But the college sports programs still wanted them. Over time, a system of prep schools grew to help struggling ball players improve their academic deficiencies—or at least launder their transcripts.
A decade ago, the NCAA cracked down on some of the especially disreputable “diploma mill” prep schools, where bogus courses and grade fixing were rampant, but the system continuously changes and adapts. For one thing, globalization has expanded the talent pool, particularly in basketball, spreading the competition for players to Europe, Asia and Africa. At the same time, hard lobbying by advocates for charter schools, independent schools, Christian schools, and for-profit schools relaxed many state requirements for starting up an educational institution, making the NCAA’s job of policing transcripts far more difficult.
“They don’t have the bodies and they don’t have the money to do the massive investigations that need to be done.”
And these prep schools, with looser academic requirements and fewer ties to established watchdog organizations such as Ohio’s activities association, became even more convenient way stations for pre-collegiate players, both foreign and domestic. The latest fad: sports academies, often just glorified travel teams, that partner with accredited schools to farm out the academic component. These partner schools can have the standing to bring international players into the country on student visas—players who are willing to pay for the privilege of competing on sports academy teams such as 22ft. Rawson’s academy spent three years in a partnership with Shannon Forest Christian School in Simpsonville, South Carolina, before teaming up with Anderson Christian School for the 2016-17 academic year. Both schools issued student-visa paperwork for 22ft’s international players. (Shannon Forest declined to comment to us, as did Anderson.)
The industry profits off the hopes of players shooting for NCAA and NBA glory, and who believe they just haven’t been discovered yet. Meanwhile, governmental, educational, and sports entities allow abuses through decentralized oversight. While federal immigration authorities chase individual cases, experts such as Atlanta immigration attorney Charles Kuck say their resources are too limited to crack down on the industry as a whole. “They don’t have the bodies and they don’t have the money to do the massive investigations that need to be done,” Kuck says. Education officials say their hands are tied, too. They can’t regulate living conditions for prep schools, let alone for sports academies such as 22ft, which aren’t even schools at all. Local governments are in charge of building codes, leaving strapped municipal and state authorities to sort out administrative housing code violations from outright crimes.
The NCAA and NBA have done little to reform the system, either, though they reap talent from it. The NBA now has 108 international players, up from 38 in 1998—a trend that has given rise to an explosion in young overseas athletes vying to play in the US at the high school and college level. In 2004, just four of the top 50 high-school-age college recruits, as rated by 247Sports.com, were internationals. For the class of 2019, that number has jumped to four of the top 15 alone. High-profile prep schools have provided top-tier foreign and domestic players a chance to develop their games and increase their visibility, including first-round NBA draft picks Ben Simmons, Joel Embiid and Josh Jackson. But they are the exception.
In many ways, Mike Rawson is typical of this century’s prep-school sports boom. He is not the first prep-school owner accused of promising fantastic educational and athletic opportunities and delivering substandard food, housing and schooling. But maybe substandard is the wrong word. In the prep-school game, there really are no standards. “That’s the problem with the whole industry, I think,” Rawson told Fusion in July. “Anybody can just get into it.”
Rawson’s history makes his point. A former hockey player in England, Rawson says he worked in corporate security, living throughout Europe and in the Middle East. In the mid-2000s, Rawson sought more lucrative opportunities with basketball and registered as an agent with FIBA, the governing body for European professional basketball, where he was able to represent professional players seeking contracts with club teams in the Euro leagues. His website says he founded 22ft Academy, named for the distance of a three-point shot in the international game, in Europe in 2006, setting up training centers and conducting clinics in Paris and Belgrade.
Once he opened 22ftUSA, his status as a FIBA agent quickly drew attention from the NCAA. NCAA amateurism rules forbid any business arrangements between professional agents and college or high-school athletes, and any such deal would jeopardize an aspiring player’s college eligibility. The violation of those rules became the basis of the U.S. government’s spectacular fraud and bribery charges against coaches from Louisville and the other colleges this fall.
The NCAA won’t comment on Rawson, but he says he was contacted by the organization soon after he started 22ft in 2013. Rawson says he cannot comment further because he claims to have signed a non-disclosure agreement with the NCAA. He denies any efforts to act as an agent for the players he brings to the U.S. In his July interview, Rawson said, “We’ve been approached by various players over the years that we’ve been here and asked, ‘Oh, how do agents work? Oh, what’s the chance of you trying to get us a job in Europe?’ And every single times I tried to [say], guys, I’m not in a position to discuss that.”
But the parent of an international player told Fusion Rawson “was always highlighting that he expected the 22ft players to choose him as an agent” once they became professionals.
One of the few times Mumin Tunc smiled after his release from Stewart Detention Center last spring was when teammates asked him about the food there. “It was better than at 22ft,” he’d tell them.
Complaints about food, or lack thereof, are common in the prep world; they were nearly universal among the more than a dozen players, parents and coaches Fusion interviewed about 22ft Academy. “We would just buy our own stuff because the dinner was so bad,” says Malick Turenne, a Canadian who played at 22ft in 2014-15. Turenne says he and several other players were frequently hungry when funds ran low, and that they often relied on concerned school staff members at Shannon Forest for weekend meals and daily snacks.
Mike Rawson attributes the dissatisfaction from some players to cultural differences and picky teenage palates. But he had a harder time explaining away the troubles with the living quarters this year. From the fall of 2013 through the summer of 2016, players had been staying in rental houses in a subdivision in Simpsonville, not far from the Shannon Forest school. But in October 2016, after he parted ways with Shannon Forest, Rawson relocated them to a former farm in Anderson, 40 miles away, to be closer to Anderson Christian School.
Problems cropped up immediately. While Rawson, his wife and two children lived in the spacious white farmhouse at the front of the property, the rest of the players shared a converted barn, as well as a converted garage that had no bathroom or showers. The teens were crammed 10 to 12 to a room in quarters that resembled a juvenile detention facility. “It was like a plantation,” says Natasha Fraley, whose son Tajah played for the national team. “I looked at that house, and I’m like, This is some slave shit. You’re in the big house, and they’re in the back house.”
Several players said vermin frequently found their way into the unsealed barn and garage: mice, opossums, roaches. A skunk got in and sprayed a player’s clothes, according to an email Rawson provided to Fusion. Two players, after being bitten by what they believe were venomous spiders, were hospitalized when the wounds became alarmingly inflamed. One player suffered so much skin damage on his leg that he went home to California and never played basketball the rest of the year. His mother filed a small-claims lawsuit for the $2,400 security deposit and one month’s rent she paid just before her son was forced to leave. She says that won’t begin to cover the costs of her son’s medical treatment.
Rawson was dismissive when asked about the incident in July. “He self-medicated,” Rawson said.
These photos, taken surreptitiously by a 22ft Academy player during the course of the 2016-17 school year, show vermin and what players believe to have been the result of a venomous spider’s bite.
There were other indignities: a washing machine that didn’t work; sinks and toilets that frequently backed up; and cheap plastic furnishings that couldn’t even hold their gear and clothes.
A 22ft parent forwarded nearly two dozen photos of more serious health hazards, surreptitiously taken by 22ft players, to a DHS agent in early May. Among the images, which were obtained by Fusion: a dead possum in the living quarters, raw sewage outside one of the living quarters that had gushed from a poorly installed septic system, and the player’s ghastly wound from the alleged spider bite.
“They were living like refugees,” says one parent of an international player, who asked not to be identified out of fear of retribution from Rawson. “You have 40 students in this unsafe structure. There weren’t any sprinklers. There weren’t enough exits for them to get out in case of fire. I mean there wasn’t even ventilation in the bathroom.”
Anderson County sheriff’s officers, at the behest of DHS investigators, inspected the barn in May. Records show a structure beset by possible code violations, including a non-permitted septic system, triple-stacked bunks and exposed wiring—but county officials didn’t order it shut down because by that time, most players had left for the year. The indictment says, “It was further part of the conspiracy that Brenda Rawson told 22ft students to lie about to the authorities if questioned about the operation of 22ft U.S. and living conditions.”
Rawson admitted in his July interview that if he had it to do again, he wouldn’t have moved the academy living quarters last year. “We rushed it,” he said. “We shouldn’t have done it this year.” He blames the contractor he hired, whom he wouldn’t name, for the lack of due diligence on permits and code compliance. “I’m not a fire and code person,” he said.
These photos, taken surreptitiously by a 22ft Academy player during the course of the 2016-17 school year, show the shoddy construction of the players’ bathrooms.
Nor is Rawson an educator, notwithstanding his website’s claim that 22ft Academy’s objective was to “educate.”
“We’re not a school,” he says of his business.
Despite that, several parents and students paid tuition to Rawson expecting their children to earn academic credits. They were profoundly disappointed. International students, for instance, must be enrolled in government-approved coursework to maintain their student visas. Nicole Oliver had paid $550 a month tuition and $1,450 to Rawson to secure an I-20 from Anderson Christian School for the 2016-17 academic year. But she says her son, Clythus Austin, never attended a single class. Rawson kept insisting that he would enroll Austin in online courses, she said, because he couldn’t get him into Anderson. And week after week, Oliver says, nothing happened. “So all the way through September, all the way through into November, Clythus has not been in school,” she says. She moved her son back home to Canada in November.
Another student, who asked not to be identified for fear of reprisal from Rawson and because he didn’t want to be seen as a troublemaker in the eyes of college scouts, told a similar story. He showed up on an Anderson I-20 at the start of the 2016 school year but was told he wouldn’t be attending any classes there. He left in the fall of 2016. A third student, who also asked not to be identified because he worries his time at 22ft could cause problems with his immigration status, says he received an I-20 from Shannon Forest in the 2014-15 school year but never attended a class there for the entire first semester. Through his attorney, Rawson declined comment on the situations described by Austin and the other two international students.
DHS regulations require any student visa holder to attend “a brick-and-mortar school,” and there are strict limits on the number and types of online courses international students may take. But Rawson seems to have played fast and loose with online courses for players seeking to become eligible for NCAA competition. “Through the investigation (of Tunc),” says the government’s arrest affidavit in the Rawson case, “it was revealed multiple students failed to attend class, were utilizing online courses in violation of their visas, and transferred schools repeatedly without being properly sponsored on an updated Form I-20.”
A photo taken surreptitiously by a 22ft Academy player during the course of the 2016-17 school year shows the run-down state of players’ living quarters.
It wasn’t just international players who felt stung. Malik Williams, a player from suburban Detroit, graduated from high school in the spring of 2016, but was one course short of being eligible under NCAA rules. So he signed up for 22ft intent on finishing that coursework while gaining some on-court exposure. Rawson told him he would play on 22ft’s elite national team, Williams says, then reneged on that promise and put him on the less-prestigious postgraduate team. “A lot of stuff he lied about,” Williams says. “He told us we were going to the Bahamas (for a tournament). I’m like, Cool! That sounds good. Then a couple days before, it’s, ‘Oh, sorry guys, yeah, you’re not going to go. But you’re going to be in this other tournament that has no (college) coaches at it.’” In his July interview, Rawson said it was common for players and parents with “unrealistic expectations” to complain about playing time, or about not being placed on the national team, but that he never made guarantees about playing time.
Still, Williams played well enough for coach Mike Alexander’s post-grad squad to get several feelers from college coaches, and he decided to accept a full scholarship from Division II Benedict College in nearby Columbia, S.C. But when Benedict saw his transcripts, Williams said, the college withdrew its offer. A spokesman for Benedict’s athletic department confirmed this. Rawson had placed Williams in an online course through Khan Academy that didn’t meet NCAA academic standards.
Williams is still furious with Rawson. “It was just like, I’m taking this class, and you know—you know—my circumstances,” he says. “I have to get this class in, because this is my life. Hoopin’ is my life. There’s no other way. Period. You know this, and you still fuck me over.”
Whether the student is a U.S. citizen or coming from another country, Kuck, the immigration attorney, says promising educational opportunities and then failing to follow through on them is an act of fraud. “There’s an intentional fraud in bringing somebody here you have no intention of actually carrying out the intention for which they’re coming, which is their education,” he says. “These aren’t F-1 visas to play basketball. They’re visas to go to high school.”
The main thrust of the government charges against the Rawsons —first reported on by Lowcountry Sports—allege the couple lied on federal disclosure forms about the existence of the 22ft parent company in Holland, which the indictment refers to as 22ft Dutch, in order to obtain an L-1A intracompany transfer visa for Mike Rawson and an L-2 spouse visa for Brenda Rawson, a Netherlands citizen. To obtain an L-1 visa, a foreign national must have proof that he or she “has a qualifying relationship with an established company that is established (for at least three years) in a foreign country.” Part of Rawson’s sales pitch in America has been that 22ft Academy was a successful offshoot of his original 22ft Basketball Academy in Europe—which he claimed ran developmental clinics all over the world.
But the government says when Rawson launched 22ftUSA in 2013, 22ft Academy in Europe didn’t exist. A State Department investigator based in Amsterdam found this year that the address Rawson listed on his visa application form for 22ft’s Dutch parent company was in fact a campground. The investigator “also physically traveled to all known addresses in Holland which 22ft claimed as its business addresses,” the arrest affidavit says, and “could not find any operational business addresses at any of the addresses.”
In the indictment, the government further alleges that Rawson “caused a law firm to submit a fraudulent diagram of the 22ft US company structure.“ Furthermore, the indictment says that Rawson, “in filing articles of incorporation of 22ft Dutch, forged the signature of Siebe Hoekstra,” who is the parent of two former 22ft players from Holland, “and falsely stated that Hoekstra’s home address was the business address for 22ft Dutch.”
A State Department investigator based in Amsterdam found this year that the address Rawson listed on his visa application form for 22ft’s Dutch parent company was in fact a campground.
Rawson was able to get 22ftUSA off the ground in 2013. But money was a constant source of strain. BSN Sports LLC, a Dallas-based sporting goods vendor, filed suit against 22ft in May to collect payment on more than $14,000 worth of 22ft team gear ordered and delivered in 2015. Rawson never answered the complaint and in September was ordered to pay the full amount plus attorney’s fees and court costs, with interest. Gabe Mendes, a Brazilian player, says his father unwittingly made an extra $1,100 tuition payment to Rawson, but Rawson refused to refund it, saying his records didn’t reflect the payment. Turenne, a player on the 2014-15 team, said Rawson tried to double his tuition mid-year, citing Turenne’s poor on-court performance.
The stress spilled over into the coaching staff. John Carey says Rawson kept shorting the national team’s head coach, Richard Gatewood, on his pay, sometimes missing payments altogether, and that the owner and the coach nearly came to blows over the matter in front of the players. (Gatewood, who along with Carey resigned after the 2016-17 season, declined interview requests with Fusion, citing a non-disparagement agreement he says Rawson forced him to sign in order to receive his final paycheck.)
Rawson has charged between $1,000 and $3,000 to international players for what he calls “processing costs” for their immigration forms. In the July interview, Rawson told Fusion the fees were to cover expenses such as international phone calls and FedEx delivery of documents, including I-20 forms. Although “recruiters” such as Rawson are allowed to charge processing fees, neither Rawson nor 22ft could legally issue I-20s, because they were not accredited by ICE’s Student Exchange Visitor Program (SEVP). “Recruiters are not supposed to be involved in the Form I-20 issuance process nor influence a student’s acceptance at a chosen school,” says Carissa Cutrell, a spokesperson for the ICE program.
Anderson Christian, as the issuing school, was supposed to handle the paperwork for Rawson’s athletes. But Nicole Oliver, Austin’s mother, says she and her son dealt exclusively with Rawson. “I paid him $1,450 for the I-20,” she says. “I never dealt with Anderson.” Oliver adds that her son was routinely stopped at the U.S.-Canadian border long after he left 22ft Academy. Border agents told her Austin’s I-20 form was not in DHS’ automated computer system, and that Anderson Christian “was not aware of their name being on the I-20.”
“He had a lot of anxiety, to the point that he was getting headaches, and, like, blindness. He was terrified.”
Mumin Tunc’s situation shows the serious consequences when the lines between recruiter and school are blurred. Tunc played the 2015-16 school year at Trinity International School, another sports-oriented school in Las Vegas. He transferred last fall to 22ft Academy. But for reasons that are still unclear, his Trinity immigration form was never updated and transferred to Anderson Christian.
According to the letter of the law, that’s Tunc’s fault. The ICE student exchange program makes it clear that students are responsible for keeping their immigration status up to date. In reality, most players with high-level college potential such as Tunc are given plenty of help by the schools and sports academies. In his Facebook chat with Fusion, Tunc said Rawson assured him his I-20 was valid. “He told me that,” Tunc said. “But he did NOTHING.” By March 28, nobody had done anything for the teenager, and Tunc was in federal custody. He wasn’t released for 16 days.
His jail stay had lasting effects, recalls Carey, who has stayed in touch with the teen. Several Division I colleges backed off recruiting him. Moreover, Carey says Tunc’s game suffered as a result of the two weeks of missed workouts during his incarceration, not to mention the trauma he dealt with. When Tunc got out and returned to Carey’s home, “There was PTSD going on,” says Carey, an Afghanistan war veteran. “He had a lot of anxiety, to the point that he was getting headaches, and, like, blindness. He was terrified.”
After years of playing on Turkish junior teams in international tournaments, he failed to make Turkey’s Under-20 National Team this summer.
While the goings-on at 22ft are disturbing enough to trigger a federal indictment, they’re not unusual. Charles Kuck, the immigration attorney, believes at least a dozen prep programs are being investigated for immigration scams, substandard housing, zoning violations, allegations of fraud, and worse. Some of the behavior in the industry verges on human trafficking. Players, Kuck says, “have zero support system, zero future, no money and no way to work. When you put a kid in a house with 20 other kids, you put that kid at risk of sexual abuse, you put him at risk of malnutrition. You simply don’t care about that kid, you care about what he can get you. That’s human trafficking.”
But most players don’t see it that way, at least not initially, and are reluctant to report their circumstances, says Jennifer Kimball Penrose, the data analysis director for the Polaris Project, which advocates against human trafficking. “People are experiencing these really horrible situations of abuse, but the narratives they tell themselves are, I can make this work, Penrose says, “because they really want to provide for their families or they really want to have a better life.”
“When you put a kid in a house with 20 other kids, you put that kid at risk of sexual abuse, you put him at risk of malnutrition. You simply don’t care about that kid, you care about what he can get you. That’s human trafficking.”
This appears to be the case at 22ft, according to parents of players. One international parent heard no complaints until the player left the academy for good. Players were “afraid we would take them out of the academy,” the parent said, “and didn’t want to jeopardize their basketball.”
Some states, such as Ohio, have responded quickly to the rise of these prep schools with strict rules changes. But Ohio is an exception. In the South, for instance, many church-affiliated and independent high schools and prep schools don’t want oversight from traditional state high-school associations. They create their own leagues, such as The Grind Session, crossing state borders to compete against others of their kind.
Kuck sees possibilities for reforms at the prep-school level trickling down from this fall’s massive college-basketball fraud investigation. The case, prosecuted by the U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of New York, is “the tip of the iceberg,” he maintains, and might spur other U.S. attorneys to pursue similar charges in other jurisdictions.
Until that happens, the government’s most effective weapon against prep-school malfeasance is the ICE Student Exchange Visa Program’s authority to punish schools by taking away accreditation when they are found to have violated immigration law. This summer, it banned schools in Georgia and North Carolina from issuing I-20s. That denies those particular schools a way to cash in on international students. But neither the federal government nor anyone else can stop a motivated entrepreneur, educator, coach, or grifter from opening a new prep school.
Even before his arrest, Mike Rawson’s vision for revolutionizing elite youth sports in America was dimming. Rawson had planned to start a football program in 2016 to accompany 22ft, called 100 Yards Academy, in partnership with former Clemson quarterback Tajh Boyd. But that never opened, and a spokesman for Boyd responded to a recent email interview request from Fusion by saying, “Tajh is not a part of this.” After the disasters with Mumin Tunc this spring, the relationship with Anderson Christian soured, and Anderson County officials this summer denied Rawson’s request to formally convert the 22ft barn into a dormitory. So he and his newly hired head coach, Cody Hopkins, looked for a new landing spot. Initially, they talked about partnering with Bob Jones Academy, the controversial Christian college in Greenville. But those talks stalled. In August, though, they had apparently found salvation elsewhere—International Junior Golf Academy in Hilton Head, a well-funded sports training center that wanted to break into basketball. Rawson shuttered 22ft Academy and rebranded the company Hilton Head Basketball Academy LLC, which was to partner with IJGA and its academic arm, Heritage Academy. But by then he’d already been under investigation for at least five months and on the government’s radar since the beginning of 2017. The arrests this month leave the fate of Rawson’s latest project up in the air and the team in limbo. A week after the arrests, Heritage briefly suspended play and was trying to figure out whether to keep Hopkins on as coach and how best to proceed. Heritage head of school Gloria Shoemaker said she was “not able” to comment on the Homeland investigation, but a source close to the probe told Fusion that the school is cooperating with authorities.
Tunc, meanwhile who went back home to Turkey for the summer, still wanted to make another go of it in America. Late in the summer, Colby Community College in Kansas offered him a basketball scholarship. Head coach Rusty Grafel was excited by the prospect of a 7-footer with Division I talent who could run the floor, step outside and shoot the ball, and protect the rim on defense. “And the number one thing about him is his character,” Grafel says. The college issued him an I-20 to once more allow him into the States, and Tunc prepared to begin classes in early October.
But days before he was to depart Istanbul, Tunc was informed by U.S. officials in Turkey that he would not be granted another student visa. Tunc told Carey it was based on his earlier student-visa issues at 22ft Academy, which he blames squarely on the owner. “He ruined everything,” Tunc wrote in October. “He ruined my life.” Last week, Tunc abandoned the idea of attending college in the U.S., and signed a professional contract with Bakirkoy, a team in the Turkish league.