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Tom Smart, Deseret News
Fans celebrate as Pine View High School defeats Juan Diego 48-42 in overtime of the State 3AA High School semi-final football game Thursday, Nov. 14, 2013, in Salt Lake City.

In the first place, God made idiots. That was for practice. Then he made school boards.

— Mark Twain

There are some problems for which there seem to be no answers. We know this. The NCAA, for instance. FIFA and the IOC, too. Catching drug cheats. Making soccer watchable. Yes, all of those are big problems, but there is one problem that for sheer complexity, high emotions and legal entanglements, might top them all: Enforcing boundaries for high school athletes.

Can’t be done. The Utah High School Activities Association, like prep sports governing bodies everywhere, wrestles with this problem constantly: How do you keep kids from going from school to school for athletic purposes. Parents and their students try everything to circumvent the rules, from renting an apartment in another boundary to a sham divorce to listing their home address with a friend or relative. The UHSAA lawyers have tried writing and rewriting the rules, but as soon as they hear “lawsuit” they fold up like the Cleveland Browns.

What’s the answer?

Anything but this: Earlier this week, in a story that landed on the front page of both Salt Lake newspapers, it was reported that the Utah School Board is considering legislation that would drop restrictions on transfers for high school athletes. Yes, they’re proposing a free-for-all. The legislation would even allow athletes to play for two or more schools in the same school year. In theory, they could play football for Bingham, basketball for Lone Peak and run track for Davis High. Or they could start the year playing football for Bingham High and, dissatisfied with a couple of losses or playing time or having to do too many up-downs, transfer to another team.

The school board and the UHSAA are meeting tonight to discuss this latest outbreak of insanity. The question is, why do proposals like this keep popping up, as it has through the years? It was a bad idea the last time it was raised, and it's still a bad idea.

David Crandall, the board chairman, told the Deseret News, “The (proposal) came about largely because of complaints about transfers.”

Yeah, so? This is news?

As the Deseret News’ Amy Donaldson reported, “(Crandall) believes the association’s transfer rules, as they’re practiced, could be at odds with the state’s open enrollment law, which allows parents to send their children to any school that has room.”

Crandall told Donaldson, “I do think there is at least some inconsistency and tension between the two (rules). With respect to transfer students, if they’re allowed to transfer legally under state law, why wouldn’t they be eligible to participate in (high school sports).”

There are so many things wrong with Crandall’s thinking that it’s difficult to know where to start. Yes, Mr. Crandall, there are two sets of rules — one for regular students and one for student-athletes. A football player cannot transfer to another team for football without sanctions, but a math student can transfer to a school that has a better math program. It’s not fair, but it’s necessary. It’s necessary for competitive balance, so the same team isn’t winning all the time, so students at other schools feel they have a fair chance, so they have hope.

Sports, whether anyone likes it or not, is by its nature a different animal. It’s why antitrust law isn’t applied to professional sports. It’s why athletes can’t move freely from team to team at any level, from little league to the National Football League. It’s why pro leagues practice various forms of socialism via revenue sharing and luxury taxes.

It’s about maintaining competitive balance.

Students, aided and abetted by parents and coaches, already tilt the competitive balance and bend the rules to play for other schools. If you remove the rules, it will be mayhem.

Colorado tried the liberal-transfer approach for a decade, allowing kids to enroll in any high school they wanted, up to one school per year.

"What happened was that teams were being manufactured and assembled," says Bill Reader, commissioner of Colorado's high school activity association. "Most of the good players were on one team. They were totally dominant. We had girls' basketball teams winning by 34 points. Move-ins were being replaced with move-ins. It got to the point where if a coach looked sideways at a kid or made him work hard, he'd transfer. It got worse and worse. Kids were making transfers just for athletic reasons."

Colorado finally abandoned the liberal policy and put restrictions and penalties on transfers.

Now we have school board members entering an arena for which they have no expertise; the experts are the UHSAA officials. The latter don’t make the rules; they enforce them. The rules are made by participating schools. Competitive balance and playing for your neighborhood school is what schools want. As UHSAA attorney Mark Van Wagoner told Donaldson, “What the (board of education) is doing is saying, 'We know a lot better how to do this than they do.' "I find that to be really arrogant.”

15 comments on this story

Aside from competitive balance there are many other reasons to enforce boundaries. For one thing, it creates big problems for the coach-player dynamic. Suddenly coaches are reluctant to call out a player for a mistake or to enforce discipline for fear the player will transfer. Suddenly, the coach feels compelled to give a player more playing time or more ball carries than he has earned. (Don’t think it can happen; I know one high school coach who did all of the above.) And what does this teach a kid? If he has a problem, he can run from it.

There is something to say for high schools being represented by players from the community. This is already abused by players flocking to certain schools outside their boundaries (most of us know what schools those are). This week school board members have talked about opening the floodgates. That would be a big mistake.

Doug Robinson's columns run on Tuesdays and Wednesdays. Email: drob@deseretnews.com