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'Our guards are up' | A Georgia family discovers the uncertain world of post-grad sports programs

Post grad programs offer young adults a chance to further develop skills and get that college offer. But its hard to know which programs are worth the money.

ATLANTA — There’s a rhythm to basketball. Cassandra Smith heard it for more than a decade while her son, Mehki Mathis, played outside in the cul-de-sac or in the countless games she took him to. She knows for her son, that rhythm means hope.

“He wants to continue playing basketball,” Smith said.

But with many college students getting another year to play due to COVID-19, Smith said teams don’t have as many slots to fill. While Mathis ended high school without an offer, he did get recruited for something else.

“I was at Walmart, he called me and said 'Mom I got an offer from this school, Fairmont [Sports Academy],'” she recalled. “He said the room was spinning it just seemed so unreal.”

Questioning the program

Post grad is one more chance for student athletes to improve their grades, train, and play as the program networks with colleges to get the student noticed. But, the more Smith and her son researched Fairmont Sports Academy, the more questions they had about the school.

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“He said at first, he didn’t think it was real," she said. "I hadn’t even opened my mouth yet. I was just kind of like that’s heartbreaking.”

There have been stories of sports programs that couldn't live up to their promises, leaving students stranded fighting to get their money back and revive their recruiting ambitions.

11Alive investigators did some digging and found the school is real, or at least hopes to be. There are social media posts thanking the head coach, Rod Wilmont, for helping them advance. But, the name of the school is new -- brand new.

"[The] Instagram page was pretty much new, all the pictures were from March 8th,” Smith said.

The web page is a hodgepodge of images from other schools where the coaches have worked in the past. Smith said none of this was explained to her.

“He just kept saying this is Fairmont. We won the championship last year. We beat IMG. That’s our school, that’s our competition,” she recalled.

11Alive investigators found Fairmont Sports Academy didn’t even play that year because under that name, it didn’t exist. Smith asked for a game schedule hoping that would clear up the confusion. It didn’t. 

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We cross-referenced it with schools listed and couldn’t find Fairmont on any of their schedules and most schools didn’t even have a game on the days Fairmont said it played.

“Yes, he did not necessarily run that by me,” said Ben Fair, dean of Fairmont Sports Academy. “It looks to me like that was Rod doing his best ability to figure out, because those are the teams we played but I think he was doing the guesswork on the dates.”

Again, by we, he means all the different schools at which his coaching staff worked at in the past.

“They were both on staff for what was called NTSI, and then it was called Veritas." Fair explained. "But neither of them were happy with the management, so that’s where I come in."

When directly asked how long Fairmont Sports Academy has been around, Fair responded, “This is going to be our first season as Fairmont.”

Advice for parents, students

You can understand Smith’s confusion and concern. There have been cases of programs with good intentions that had to fold due to funding or management mid-season. Or even potential scams that left students and parents left to fight with the courts to get their money back.

There’s no national association or certification for post-grad sports programs. Tim Pernetti, the COO for IMG Academy said it’s up to prospective students to do their homework. IMG is a long-standing and well-known post-grad program. 

“Get to know the people, get to know the program, get to know the environment," Pernetti advised. "And then, certainly think long and hard about what you're hoping to accomplish with your young student athlete."

Pernetti knows many students hold out until the summer waiting for that college offer. So, post grad is often a decision made weeks before the fall season begins.

When it gets made late, sometimes the opportunity to really dive in and learn, you don't have as much time to do that,” Pernetti said.

Pernetti tells parents to visit the campus and talk with staff before making a decision.

"Our guards are up"

Fair agrees and said prospective students can see where Fairmont Sports Academy plans to train and live. 11Alive spoke with the proposed apartment complex. Until the program starts in the fall, the complex said Fairmont is working off of a verbal agreement not a contract. 

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Fair said he’s not worried. His coaching staff sells the program.

“They’re two of the top names in the prep school coaching arena in Florida right now. So, we’ve been pretty successful getting kids assigned for next season right now,” Fair said.

Smith said for her, each dribble now means uncertainty. Post grad isn’t cheap. Tuition can easily cost $25,000.

“It’s a huge commitment,” Smith said.

Now, she's playing defense.

“Our guards are up," she said. "So it’s kind of like we’re doing a lot of research before we sign anything.”

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