Amy Donaldson: 6 changes the UHSAA should adopt to deal with current realities

Published: Sunday, Nov. 25 2012 5:10 p.m. MST

East High School football team players say a prayer of thanks after hearing that the UHSAA ruled that East High can compete in the playoffs at East High School in Salt Lake City on Friday, Oct. 19, 2012.

Laura Seitz, Deseret News

MIDVALE — Since its creation in 1927, the Utah High School Activities Association has had one goal — provide as many opportunities as possible for as many students as possible.

The reason has been simple.

In the beginning, those who started education-based interscholastic sports and activities believed participation made for better students. Studies have since proved their original hypothesis correct in that those students who participate in sports and fine arts activities tend to graduate at higher rates, feel more confident and earn better grades than their counterparts.

But somehow that singular purpose and simple logic has become complicated and controversial.

Recently, high schools have dealt with major financial audits. Ineligible players suited up for two of the state's best football teams this fall. And this week a lawsuit is scheduled to decide whether the way the UHSAA deals with transfer students is arbitrary or appropriate.

In discussing the problems now facing those who govern, those who participate and those who benefit from high school sports, it's important to keep in mind the purpose behind incorporating them into schools.

First, the purpose of high school sports is, officially, to encourage participation in extracurricular activities.

It is not for students to earn college scholarships.

It is not to win championships.

It is not to bring communities together.

Can prep sports do all of those things and more? Yes.

But as noble and wonderful as those goals are, they are not the stated purpose of the UHSAA or its 138 member schools. They are not the reasons more than 85,000 students can participate in high school sports on the same campuses where they are learning to read, write and hopefully earn a living.

Secondly, the state has an open enrollment law that allows parents to send their children to any school they want — for any reason. You don't have to live in the boundaries of West Jordan High to benefit from the programs offered at that school.

Open enrollment, passed in the early 1990s, creates a conflict with the UHSAA and Utah State School Board rule that says students may not change schools for athletic purposes.

An important point of clarification: Any student can go to any school for any reason on first entry. So if Johnny Smith, who happens to be the greatest baseball player to ever throw a ball, decides in eighth grade he wants to go to Baseball Rocks High School (not his home school), so he can try to win a state title, he is completely within his rights to do so.

It's safe to say that thousands of high school students attend a school that is not their home boundary school. They do it for many reasons, and yes, sometimes athletics plays a role.

That's because, for many student-athletes, that label isn't something easily separated. Their friends are the teens they met playing on little league, AAU and accelerated sports teams. They are as entitled to choose a high school for its sports programs as my children were to choose Hillcrest for its International Baccalaureate program.

But after a student chooses, even just a single day after, he or she is not allowed to switch schools for athletic reasons.

Again, the logic is simple. No one wants to see 14-year-olds being recruited for their athletic ability. Not one wants to see the difficult, confusing, emotionally draining and sometimes sinister world of college recruiting come to high school sports.

So there is a transfer rule in Utah that says once a student establishes eligibility, he or she must file paperwork with the UHSAA asking for permission to play.