How Covid and the Rule Book Kept a Promising Athlete on the Bench

Jahmir Harris followed the same routine for every basketball game of his senior year at Fordham Prep.

He walked onto the court wearing street clothes — khakis and loafers, if it was a school day. During warm-ups, he stood off to the side, watching the other team and searching for any insights he could pass on to his teammates. When the game began, the school’s best player took his seat on the bench next to the coaches and stayed there until it was over.

One year ago, Harris was a starter on the Fordham Prep boys’ basketball team that won a city championship in New York’s storied Catholic league, which has produced greats like Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Chris Mullin and Kemba Walker. Harris, who is 6-foot-4, played power forward, where he often grabbed a double-digit number of rebounds and shot 3-pointers like a guard.

But instead of spending his senior season as the centerpiece of Fordham Prep’s team, Harris became a curiosity. His classmates at the boys’ preparatory school in the Bronx didn’t understand why he wasn’t allowed to play. Someone would ask him during every game how it felt not to be able to take the court.

Harris would reply that he was getting used to it, but that didn’t answer the question.

Just a few months before his high school graduation, with the basketball season winding down, Harris, 18, doesn’t know whether he’ll be able to play college basketball, a goal of his since he began playing the sport in second grade. His high school playing career was interrupted first by the Covid-19 pandemic. Then, only hours before his senior season was supposed to begin in November, his high school league told him he was ineligible to play.

“Everybody was saying they’ll help me, and we’ll still do this, and I’ll be able to play in college. They’ll find a way,” Harris said. “But when they told me it was over, that’s when I broke down and started crying.”

When the coronavirus disrupted college sports, the N.C.A.A. offered an extra year of eligibility to athletes who had a season affected by pandemic restrictions. But some high school leagues declined to adjust their rules to accommodate students. Harris was one of the teenagers who fell through this gap.

As researchers parse out the myriad ways in which the pandemic affected kids, perhaps they will consider the effects on teenagers like Harris, a college prospect who lost his senior season to a rule he still can’t fathom.

In the spring of 2020, during the early throes of the pandemic, Harris was finishing his sophomore year at public school in Ossining, N.Y. Like a lot of students, he wasn’t learning well from prerecorded video lectures. His parents, who had seen his two older sisters struggle with college coursework despite being honor students at the local high school, decided to enroll him in private school. In his application essay to Fordham Prep, Harris wrote that he was seeking “a structured educational program.” He repeated his sophomore year at Fordham Prep to catch up.

Jahmir’s parents, Tosha and Kenroy, married young and did not finish high school (though Tosha received her diploma last year). For that reason, they made attending college a priority for their three children. Kenroy’s job as a foreman at a crane yard is their sole income, and they made sacrifices to send Jahmir to Fordham Prep, where tuition costs more than $20,000 per year. Tosha jokes that the 14-year-old minivan she drives is held together with a Band-Aid.

Because of local restrictions, there was no basketball season during the 2020-21 school year, Harris’s sophomore year. Tosha and Kenroy both have medical conditions that make them high risk for the coronavirus, so Harris did not step foot inside Fordham Prep that year, instead attending live classes virtually to help protect them. The A.A.U. circuit, where a lot of recruiting takes place, was also constricted at the onset of the pandemic.

In December 2020, knowing that her son would not play during his sophomore season, Tosha wrote a letter to the Catholic High School Athletic Association, or C.H.S.A.A. She asked that he be allowed to play in his junior and senior seasons even though his senior season would have technically been his fifth year of eligibility. She wanted him to have the fullest high school experience possible and the best chance to play in college like his sister Kailah, a scholarship athlete at Seton Hall.

Brian Carney, the interim president at Fordham Prep, said that the school submitted Tosha’s letter along with Jahmir’s transfer paperwork that month.

Harris and his family got vaccinated against the coronavirus in 2021, paving the way for him to return to both in-person classes and the basketball court. He earned a spot as the only junior in Fordham Prep’s starting lineup for the 2021-22 season and had one of his best games of the season to help his team win the city championship. He began hearing from Division III coaches and was invited to summer camps at Columbia and Fairfield, both Division I programs.

Tosha frequently called and emailed Fordham Prep’s athletic director, Anthony Kurtin, asking if he had heard back from the C.H.S.A.A. “Will he retain his eligibility to play his remaining two years?” she wrote in a July 2021 email. Tosha remembers Kurtin telling her at a game that fall, “No news is good news.” (Kurtin declined an interview request, citing school policy. Carney, who answered questions via email, said Kurtin did not remember this conversation.)

At the heart of the matter is a New York State rule that gives students four consecutive seasons of athletic eligibility. Carney said informal discussions took place about making a rare exception for Harris and that Fordham Prep believed Harris’s “unique family medical circumstances” warranted consideration by the league. He said the school was not told until June 2022, 18 months after Tosha wrote her letter, that Harris was not eligible for his senior season.

But there was an appeals process, so Harris took part in the Catholic League’s summer team camp and preseason workouts, preparing to lead Fordham Prep as they defended their city title. The “entire basis” of Harris’s appeal, Carney said, was “the pandemic restrictions that were put in place for public safety and family health.”

Kevin Pigott, a Fordham Prep teacher and the C.H.S.A.A. president for boys’ sports in the New York Archdiocese, gave a different version of events in emailed responses to questions. He said he told Kurtin when he submitted Harris’s transfer paperwork that Harris would be ineligible as a senior, and that the C.H.S.A.A. informed its athletic directors that missing a season because of Covid-19 would not be a reason to extend eligibility.

Pigott was part of the five-person executive committee that he said reviewed Harris’s appeal and unanimously decided in July 2022 not to grant him an exception. In early September, Fordham Prep made its final appeal, to a league committee made up of five principals.

Harris dived into his senior year, enrolling in classes like A.P. macroeconomics and aeronautical science, and raising his G.P.A. to 3.9. When nearly two months went by without an answer, Tosha emailed Kurtin and the team’s coach, Brian Downey.

“Waiting to hear from the committee has given my son hope and to hear from them anything other than a yes at this point I feel will cause emotional damage that I’ve tried to prevent,” Tosha wrote on Nov. 3, two days before the season was set to begin. (Pigott said appeals normally take at least a month and that Harris’s process took longer because Pigott was out sick with Covid-19.)

Kurtin called Tosha with the news on the eve of tryouts. Tosha had hoped to tell her son in person, but when he called her from the Metro North train on his hourlong commute home from school, she couldn’t lie to him. He began unfollowing basketball pages on Instagram. The team’s point guard called him and said he didn’t want to play the season without him.

That weekend, Tosha said she opened the door to his room “50 times a day” to check on him. His parents were surprised on Monday morning when Jahmir said he wanted to go to practice. He couldn’t imagine his daily routine without basketball.

Kenroy wasn’t sure it would last. He immigrated from Jamaica as a teen and joined his school’s basketball team, but he was ruled ineligible because of his age. Kenroy quit before the first game. His son, he said, “is a better man than me.”

Harris practiced against the starting five, “trying to help them get better,” he said. Fordham Prep paid for him to travel with the team to a tournament in Florida over the holidays, his first time on an airplane, and he was recognized on Senior Night. But he missed taking part in a milestone he had eyed for years, the National Signing Day ritual for college-bound athletes. Downey invited college coaches to the gym to watch Harris practice, but it proved difficult to get anyone to come out for anything but a game.

Harris played on a travel A.A.U. team for the first time last summer, though finding the right team and standing out on a crowded club circuit was hard as a latecomer. That led to an offer to play his senior season at a charter school in the Bronx, but he wanted to finish his schooling at Fordham Prep, and he also held out hope his appeal would succeed. There’s no way of knowing what interest Harris might have drawn from colleges if he had been able to play this season, a “what if” that he grapples with daily.

The Harrises have struggled to reckon with how Jahmir’s case was handled. Why did it take nearly two years to receive a final decision on his eligibility? Why was he left hanging until the night before his senior season began? They felt the process lacked both transparency and empathy.

At times this season, Tosha noticed that her usually jovial son came home “solemn” from games. Watching the team lose when he knew that he could have helped if he were playing was the hardest part, Harris said. As Fordham Prep tries to defend its city championship in this month’s Catholic league playoffs, Harris will be in his usual place on the bench.

“Right now, everything’s a maybe,” Tosha said. “He worked so hard to have everything in place. Somebody dropped the ball, and we didn’t.”

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