Friday, July 09, 2010

SPORTS>>Questions still follow as Ballard awaits trial

Leader sportswriter

Children’s education is a subject almost as touchy as politics and religion — and too often just as scandalous these days.

Former Abundant Life coach and principal Tim Ballard’s trial for sexual assault has been set for Oct. 27. Ballard was arrested in early March and released on bond after an anonymous tip to Sherwood police in late February indicated he had been suspended from the school for alleged misconduct with a number of female students.

When Leader sports editor Todd Traub assigned me to cover Abundant Life’s first-round 2A regional game against Clarendon at White County Central High School on Feb. 25, I had no clue to the firestorm surrounding the school or Ballard that was lurking around the corner.

I obviously found it odd a coach would miss a state tournament qualifier — especially a coach who almost single-handedly built one of the best 2A programs in the state as Ballard had done.

I sat in the stands with the Owls fans in the second half of the game after shooting photos on the floor in the first half.

There were no whispers of Ballard’s whereabouts or what had happened the day before, but then again, many of the parents and fans from Abundant Life at least know I work as a sportswriter with one of the local papers. I’m sure there is a good chance many of the conversations were being carefully screened in my area of the bleachers and at that point there was no clue to the alarming nature of the charges against Ballard, so I didn’t quiz any of the parents.

My post-game interviews were only the start of a confusing week spent trying to figure out what the heck was going on.

Assistant (now interim) coach Chris Horton would only say Ballard had “family issues” and could not attend the game. A phone call to athletic director and senior girls coach Justin Moseley the following day garnered an almost identical response.

But what the administrators did not understand in their attempt to keep things under wraps as they looked more carefully into Ballard’s behavior was that vague, abstract answers like the ones I was receiving only increase media suspicions.

If there had been a death in the family, they would have simply said he had a death in the family. A sick child would not have kept him away from a game this important unless the child was gravely ill, and again, I likely would have been told the child was in the hospital.

But saying there is a family issue with no details gives an immediate impression something is not kosher.

As if that wasn’t enough, the pastor at the Sylvan Hills First Baptist Church days later sent a press release regarding Ballard’s suspension exclusively to another newspaper, despite The Leader’s great er circulation area and more extensive coverage of the Abundant Life programs through the years.

And now look at the mess the school and church are in.

Even if Ballard ends up exonerated, he will most likely never hold a whistle as a coach again as long as he lives.

And, regardless of the outcome, the school may not survive. A scandal this big at a school that small will be a difficult thing to overcome, especially if the alleged number of abuse victims turns out to be accurate.

Part of what makes this situation so shocking to us all is that there is no real opportunity to say, “Where were the parents?” This was a guy who was in charge of nearly all extra-curricular activities, who professed to having a deep religious conviction and was the high school’s primary administrator.

I can see how a parent could find it easy to trust someone like Tim Ballard. I took over the Abundant Life beat for The Leader in 2005, and was instantly impressed.

At first glance he appeared to have everything going his way — from an appealing, apparently stable family to a great job at the same, cozy, faith-based private school he graduated from years earlier.

But, if the allegations facing Ballard are proven in court, something went terribly wrong for him along the way.

And, if my worst fears concerning the identity of the original student turned whistle blower prove correct, many of the school’s top athletic accomplishments will be forever tarnished.

Someone from that school should have talked sooner. They were bound by law to talk to the police in 1999 when the first report of inappropriate behavior came to light.

But the school should have also been more forthright with the media, and especially with the parents.

Trust is not an easy thing for anyone to attain. And in Abundant Life’s case, 33 years of trust built within the community, and with parents and media, came crashing down on March 1 when the criminal investigation into Ballard’s actions began.

But, as questions how, why and how many are answered in the coming months, let us remember a few things. Remember how unfair this situation has been to the students of Abundant Life and how terrifying it must be to their poor parents.

My dealings with the administrators and parents at that school have been nothing but positive the past six years. I hope they are finding comfort and healing in their prayers.