Above the scoreboard at the Buchanan High baseball diamond, the words “NATIONAL CHAMPIONS” along with “2011” and “2016” are displayed in large, white letters.
I’ll never look at that sign the same way again. The second of those two championships has been tarnished – both in my eyes and in those of everyone except perhaps the staunchest of the program’s supporters and apologists.
This isn’t to say Buchanan wouldn’t have won the 2016 Central Section title, or the mythical national championship as anointed by USA Today, without the two players who were accused of sexual assault of an intoxicated 16-year-old classmate several months before.
But that’s not the point. Those two players, Hunter Reinke and Blake Wells, should have never been allowed to wear a Bears uniform with such serious charges hanging over them. Charges the Clovis Unified School District knew about. Yet both continued to play baseball, both that season and, in Reinke’s case, the following one, too.
And, no, this isn’t a case of “innocent until proven guilty.” Clovis Unified makes a habit of disciplining students, either through expulsion or forced transfers, who violated the district’s Code of Conduct without any adjudication.
Just not these two particular athletes, members of their school’s marquee team.
“They pick and choose who they punish,” said one ex-staff member who didn’t want his name used because he has kids attending school in the district.
Just as much as sprawling campuses, top-notch athletic facilities and solid academics, selective, preferential punishment has become part and parcel with how we view Clovis Unified.
Rather, the common reaction seems to be, “Yup, that’s Clovis Unified. That’s the way they do things. We all know that.”
The district did this to itself.
This past week I spoke to a Fresno lawyer who recently represented a female athlete at a Clovis Unified high school. This young woman and her friend brought a water bottle containing two inches of vodka to a football game. A faculty member caught them taking sips from the bottle, and as a result she was subjected to an “involuntary transfer” to the district’s continuation school.
Never mind this young woman had attended Clovis Unified since elementary school and never before faced any disciplinary action.
“There was no appeal,” the lawyer said. “She was forced to transfer to Gateway for her senior year and couldn’t walk (in graduation ceremonies) with her friends. … And I know the same thing happened to the girl that was with her.”
I spoke to a former staff member (the same one quoted above) who said his son was assaulted by a star basketball player who went on to get a full scholarship to an NCAA Division I program. When the staff member reported the incident to the school’s athletic director, he was told, in no uncertain terms, to hush up.
“He told me that if you want to play the game, you need to play the game,” the ex-staff member said.
Some students get punished. Others get their punishments swept under the rug.
Ex-Clovis Unified staff member
Then there’s the case of Nathan G. (the name used in legal documents) who in 2011 was involuntarily transferred to Gateway from Clovis High after admitting he smoked marijuana before arriving on campus. His appeal was denied by California’s 5th District Court.
Smoking pot before school and consuming alcohol at football games are clear violations of Clovis Unified’s Code of Conduct.
Yet the female athlete and Nathan G. were forced to transfer against their will, while Reinke and Wells were allowed to keep playing ball. Even though their alleged actions – not to mention being present at a party where alcohol is served, another code violation – are much more heinous.
I emailed Clovis Unified spokeswoman Kelly Avants to find out why Reinke and Wells were allowed to suit up for the Bears even though district officials were aware of the charges.
In response, Avants cautioned me not to assume the two got off without consequences, which she couldn’t reveal. Fair enough. Yet Reinke and Wells continued to play baseball and remained at Buchanan through graduation, so how severe could those consequences be?
What administrators fail to realize is that the black eye they’re getting now – and deservedly so – is much more damaging to the district’s reputation than the boost they receive from any athletic glories.
Were they really naive enough to think a story this explosive could be kept under wraps?
Besides the victim, I feel sorry for all the Clovis Unified athletes and coaches who haven’t done anything wrong. The district’s inaction tarnishes their reputations, too.
Sure, Buchanan baseball can call itself 2016 national champions. No one can take that away. But at what cost?