by Marcus Harrison Green
In the latest twist in the ongoing investigation into Garfield High School’s alleged football recruiting violations, John McKinney speaks out to “set the record straight”.
McKinney is the man responsible for enrolling the former student at the center of the controversy with Seattle Schools.
The crux of the issue is whether or not 19-year-old Will Sanders was recruited to Garfield High from Beaumont, TX by the school’s head football Coach Joey Thomas to play on promises of lavish life prospects in exchange for athletic performance, or whether Sanders arrived in Seattle of his own volition searching for better life circumstances than his hometown offered.
In an exclusive interview with the Emerald, McKinney, who helped bring Sanders to Seattle in August of 2016, says the young man’s claims that Garfield Head Football Coach Joey Thomas improperly recruited him from Beaumont, TX are unequivocally false. McKinney also alleges that Garfield’s previous head football coach Derek Sparks might have some level of involvement with Thomas’ plight.
Cognizant of his words being dismissed as a conspiracy theory, McKinney provided text exchanges between him and Sparks, along with phone records showing calls between the two, and a witness to the phone conversations.
McKinney says Sparks, who resigned as Garfield’s head coach in March of 2016, initially texted him in a seemingly joyful mood on the day the Seattle Times broke the story that Garfield High School was under investigation. The text included a link to the article and the quote: Can I have your autograph?
Sparks next contact with McKinney was less jovial, after the Emerald published a follow up story May 9 on the Garfield investigation. First calling, Sparks left an angry voice mail after McKinney was unable to pick up the phone.
Sparks then texted: “This is why I said don’t mention my name” with a link to the Emerald’s story.
McKinney responded that he did not “give any interviews” and that he would call Sparks back.
Relating the ensuing conversation, McKinney says Sparks “threatened” him by saying “We’re gonna have a problem” And to “not say shit”, because “his people” within the Seattle Public School District “said that it looked like Joey might get off.”
McKinney provided several additional texts, and the Emerald has reached out to Sparks multiple times for comment on his version of events but has yet to receive a response. The Emerald also spoke with an individual who was present during Sparks and McKinney’s conversation that corroborated McKinney’s version of the discussion.
For McKinney, the conversation raised several questions. One was why Sparks seemed to react so irately when the Emerald’s article only briefly mentioned him, and he wasn’t currently at center of any investigation. He also questioned Spark’s “connection” within the Seattle Public Schools; as only someone close enough to the internal workings of the investigation would be aware of its status.
“It just seemed crazy that he would call me all panicky. My thing is, if you didn’t do anything wrong, than what do you have to worry about? No one was investigating him,” says McKinney.
The Emerald reached out to the Seattle Public School District about the developing investigation, and received this statement from the district’s office of public affairs:
“We take the allegations regarding the Garfield football program very seriously. The issues are being thoroughly investigated by an outside investigator. We are committed to understanding if WIAA violations occurred and, if so, taking steps to address them. The district is committed to equity, to fairness, and to following the rules. The well-being and safety of our students is a top priority.”
The Emerald also contacted individual school board members for responses with all saying they could not comment on an ongoing investigation.
McKinney and Sparks have history. Sparks coached McKinney’s youngest son Cameron at Garfield High School, helping him land a scholarship at the University of North Dakota after Cameron excelled on and off the field.
The elder McKinney credits the change of scenery Cameron found in Seattle, after growing up in Beaumont, TX where he experienced a rough stretch, including the murder of Cam’s brother Chad Slaughter, as a turning point in his son’s life.
News of Cameron’s success soon traveled through Beaumont, according to McKinney. This is where Will Sanders entered the picture.
McKinney says he knew Sanders’ father, and was asked by a mutual friend to help Sanders get out of Beaumont in hopes of the teen undergoing a similar life transformation.
“No one seemed to want to take a chance on him, but no one had reached for me when I was his age and I wish they had,” says McKinney, who is forthright about his past drug addiction prior to settling in Seattle and straightening out his life.
His adopted city had worked wonders for him and his son, and he thought the same would be true of Sanders. He flew Sanders up here and enrolled him at Garfield.
“I knew Will’s past but I was willing to leave it there. I told him, ‘if you play sports then you play sports’ but you’re here to get your life together. He had never even met Joey Thomas before coming to Garfield,” says McKinney.
He adds that the only initial conversations he had with Thomas in regards to Sanders related to the then 18-year-olds need for an environment change from Beaumont.
He also says that he was the one who received a video of Sanders playing basketball – not Thomas, as has been reported elsewhere.
“Why in the hell would someone recruit a kid who never played football, and only ever played basketball in the park?” asks McKinney.
Sanders initially arrived in Seattle in late August, but then returned to Beaumont in late November.
McKinney echoed statements he previously said on the Ron and Don Show weeks ago, that he did not force Sanders to go home.
McKinney claims he dropped Sanders off at the airport in November, not expecting to see him again, which is why he was surprised to hear Sanders’ account of events first published in the Seattle Times, and then on KIRO news.
While McKinney went out of his way to not speak ill of Sanders, viewing him as a young man being used by older adults, he says that the narrative making the rounds through mainstream media is inaccurate.
The adopted Seattlite says he thinks someone is coaching Sanders to recite his tale to the news media. And while he wouldn’t go on the record as to whom that person might be, he says it seems awfully peculiar that Sparks would respond to him with such fury.
“Sparks told me that [Seattle Times] reporter Claudia Rowe told him I was a credible witness, and that my testimony might set Joey free,” says McKinney.
He adds that it seemed strange that Sparks, who had not been mentioned in Rowe’s original story would be talking to a Times reporter about the case at all.
When reached for comment, Rowe says that it is “a 100 percent fact” that she has never spoken with Derek Sparks. Rowe says that the only time she was able to get a hold of Sparks is over Facebook, when he asked her to email him questions.
McKinney also says he didn’t speak to attorney Phil Thompson of law firm Perkins Coie in Bellevue, the investigator hired by Seattle Public Schools on the Garfield case, because he was afraid the words of a black man “would be twisted.”
“Sparks kept saying for me to not say anything because reporters kept reaching out to him. For me, this was about helping a kid. I don’t know what all this other stuff is about.”
McKinney says that it’s still perplexing how Sparks appeared aware of details pertaining to the investigation that were not publicly available, including Thomas’s status, and that McKinney himself was viewed as a credible witness.
The only people with knowledge of the case’s progression would be the Seattle School District’s legal counsel, the investigator, and potentially members of the school board who were kept abreast of the situation.
Thompson, the case’s investigator, is away from Perkins Coie until May 29, but an assistant via email said that Thompson would respond to the Emerald’s request for comment about the implication of any leaks of the investigation to third parties by those being updated on the case.
School board members are supposed to be prohibited from publicly or privately sharing information on the case, as is Thomas who could not speak about the investigation when contacted.
On Monday, King County NAACP President Gerald Hankerson contacted the Emerald, saying he met with Seattle Public School District Superintendent Larry Nyland last week to discuss why the investigation into Thomas was continuing. Nyland also confirmed the meeting.
Hankerson says he presented photos of texts and other evidence to buttress the claim that Thomas was not involved with a recruiting scandal.
He would not comment on where he received the items from, but the photos he sent to the Emerald match up with the image of the text exchange between Sparks and McKinney.
Hankerson also shared that he told Nyland the names of the individuals he’s ascertained are leaking information to the press about Thomas’ case, but declined to publicly disclose them at this time.
The Garfield investigation is still in process.
Marcus Harrison Green, is the editor-in-chief and co-founder of the South Seattle Emerald, the current scholar-in-residence at Town Hall Seattle, a former Reporting Fellow with YES! Magazine, a past- board member of the Western Washington Chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists and a recipient of Crosscut’s Courage Award for Culture. He currently resides in the Rainier Beach neighborhood and can be found on Twitter @mhgreen3000