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.
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.
A Star-Powered School Sputters
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.
“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 recording — obtained 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.”
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.”
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.”