Renewed debate over Nisky principal’s moonlighting as NFL agent

A baseball book, a blog post and some harsh accusations are creating a buzz in the town of Niskayuna.

“Saving Babe Ruth,” a self-published novel by local author and Niskayuna High School alumnus Tom Swyers, describes a character who sounds suspiciously like Niskayuna High School Principal John Rickert.

The author says his book is based on a true story, and its parallels to real life have raised eyebrows.

The character in question, Jerry Conway, is both a high school principal and a professional sports agent. So, too, is Rickert, whose website, agentjr.com, boasts that he has more than 100 clients and more than $300 million in contracts negotiated.

In short, Swyers’ character isn’t a very good principal. And that’s why, a blog post Swyers wrote in late October charges, Rickert emailed the author, threatening a false-light lawsuit. Swyers maintains the book is protected free speech.

A representative of Niskayuna High School said Rickert would be unavailable to comment until later this week, after a Board of Education meeting on the matter.

The issue of Rickert holding two jobs has been raised in the past, but school board members have always refused to engage in discussion about the topic, pointing to rules about privacy and personnel issues.

There is a clause in the Niskayuna Central School District Code of Ethics, which applies to both school board members and district employees, that prohibits outside employment if it “creates a conflict with or impairs the proper discharge of official duties.”

The district has always held that Rickert’s agent work does not interfere with his responsibilities as an administrator.

However, Swyers’ accusations go further. In the blog post, which has circulated extensively on social media, he alleges that Niskayuna’s college-acceptance rates to popular schools have fallen in comparison with other high schools around the Capital Region. He displays charts and statistics, and he lays the blame for any shortcomings on Rickert.

Swyers admits he has never spoken with Rickert, but highlights some trouble he faced in his agent work in 2013. Rickert was suspended by the NFL for three months for failing to pay a settlement to another agent and former partner.

“The school district’s reputation is now tied to J.R. Rickert’s reputation as a sports agent,” Swyers wrote in his blog. “I don’t see how this helps the high school compete.”

He suggested that college recruiters might form a negative opinion of the principal, and subsequently allow that opinion to affect their view of his students.

In response to Swyers’ post, interim Superintendent John Yagielski has decided to reverse the district’s usual policy of silence on the matter with a special school board meeting Thursday.

“To be frank, this is a unique situation and it requires a special meeting,” Yagielski said in a statement. “When issues of importance to our school community arise, such as this one, I believe we need to take the time to review them in a very open and transparent manner.”

The meeting will include an update from Yagielski about the accuracy of the college acceptance data Swyers’ used, which relies on self-reporting by students. Officials will also address issues of personnel privacy.

Finally, Rickert will address the board about the ways he balances his roles as principal and professional agent. The meeting is public, but the community will not be invited to comment.

As for Swyers, he said he’s confident the district will do what’s best for its students.

“I have an underlying faith in my hometown, Niskayuna’s interim superintendent and Niskayuna’s Board of Education,” he said in an email.

He and his wife both graduated from Niskayuna High in the 1970s. Their son graduated two years ago.