Days before Hilton Head Island High School self-reported eligibility violations by its football team, the school's new athletics director told the S.C. High School League that one of its transfer students was living in an apartment owned by the Seahawks' head coach.
The league told athletics director Mark Karen that the living arrangement does not violate its rules. However, senior Philip Harris' transfer to Hilton Head High's district might not meet the organization's criteria for a "bona fide move" because his former residence is still occupied by his stepfather.
The state's major governing body for public high school athletics on Wednesday fined the school $200 and placed its athletics program on "warned status" for allowing two players to participate in two preseason scrimmages before the High School League ruled them eligible.
Harris, one of those players, is living in an apartment in the Oaks complex on Hilton Head Island owned by Seahawks football coach Tim Singleton. Harris lives there with his mother, Natasha Murray, and a 9-year-old sister, who attends Hilton Head Island Elementary School, Murray said.
Singleton said he spoke to lawyers before allowing Harris' family to rent one of his units and was assured it was legal, though he realizes the arrangement might raise eyebrows.
"It looks very sketchy," Singleton said. "If we were the NCAA ... but we're not the NCAA."
Murray said her son's transfer from Hardeeville High School was not motivated by football.
"I'm glad he's able to play football, but we came here so he could get to Hilton Head (High) and get a better education." Murray said.
Harris, who said his stepfather grew up on Hilton Head Island, also considered transferring to Bluffton High School but wasn't swayed to "jump on the bandwagon" after the Bobcat football team advanced to the Class 3-A Lower State finals last season.
"Everybody's been saying Coach Singleton bribed me or paid me to come over here, but I've been wanting to come over here all my life," Harris said.
Hilton Head High principal Amanda O'Nan on Monday suspended Singleton through Sept. 5, forcing him to miss tonight's game at Beaufort High School and a Sept. 2 contest at Ridgeland High School. He cannot attend practice during the suspension.
"The action we took was not related to where a player lives," O'Nan said Wednesday when asked if Singleton would face any further punishment following the league's ruling. "The action we took was in regards to violating S.C. High School League rules."
Those violations stemmed from Singleton playing two transfers -- Harris, a running back, and former Ridgeland lineman Justin Jenkins -- in scrimmages Aug. 5 and 12 when they had not yet been cleared to play by the league. Harris had enrolled at Hilton Head High by that time, but Jenkins had not, leaving him uninsured and possibly opening the team, school and district to liability, superintendent Valerie Truesdale said.
O'Nan reported the infractions Aug. 16.
Karen, the school's athletics director, said he learned before the school reported those infractions that Harris was living in one of 20 units in the Oaks that Singleton purchased in January. He drove with a school social worker to the subsidized-housing complex and confirmed Harris and his mother were living there -- a procedure he said he follows with all transfers. Karen then asked commissioner Jerome Singleton if High School League rules prohibit a player's family from renting from a coach; Karen said the commissioner -- no relation to Tim Singleton -- told him they do not.
Harris and Jenkins were cleared by the High School League in time to play in the Seahawks' season-opening loss to Bluffton on Friday, but school officials say they did not know -- and thus did not report -- that Harris' stepfather, Eric Murray, still lives in the family's Hardeeville home.
A man who identified himself on the phone as Eric Murray said his entire family, including Harris, moved out of their Hardeeville residence, but he said he still lives there.
According to Article 7, Section 9 of the League's constitution, a transfer student and his parents must have a "bona fide change of residence" to be eligible at a new school. To meet that requirement, the entire family and their furniture must be moved, and the original residence "must be clearly closed as the residence of the family and must not be used by the family."
"If someone is still living in the former residence, we wouldn't recognize it as a bona fide move," Jerome Singleton said. "... Even if it's a stepdad."
Karen said Harris' transfer form lists the player's former residence as vacant. Karen said he didn't check Harris' former home after verifying his current address was correct. He said he wasn't sure who filled out Harris' transfer paperwork but that the responsibility would fall upon the player's coach.
"I had no reason to investigate the former residence," Karen said. "The transfer form states the previous home was vacant. Once I verified the home address to be correct, I had no reason to doubt that."
Tim Singleton said he is unaware Eric Murray is still living the family's former home. He added that Harris' family approached him in May looking for housing on Hilton Head Island.
Singleton said Natasha Murray is paying $650 per month in rent, his standard one-bedroom price.
The coach added that 19 of his 20 units in the Oaks are occupied and that Harris is the only one of his players whose family is renting any of his property.
"There's nothing illegal or immoral about anything we've done," Singleton said. "Period."
Editor Jeff Kidd contributed to this report.