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High school sports: Transfer rule up for debate on kids' best interests

Published: Saturday, Aug. 29 2015 11:01 a.m. MDT

When it comes to high school, athletics are supposed to be a secondary concern.

Unfortunately, when it comes to high school students, athletics and academics may be more intertwined than anyone wants to admit.

Which is why balancing Utah's open enrollment law with the traditional practice of not allowing student athletes to transfer from one school to another for athletic reasons is so difficult.

The Utah Legislature's Education Interim Committee discussed a bill proposed by Sen. Howard Stephenson, R-Draper, which would essentially forbid any school district, board or association from restricting transfers between schools for athletic reasons. It also puts into code those things for which a student's eligibility can be restricted or revoked, including academic performance or behavioral problems.

"It seems there are two competing policy considerations," said Rep. Kraig Powell. "I see this bill is going to one extreme, but I worry the Activities Association is going to the other extreme."

Powell was referencing a rule passed by the Utah High School Activities Association's Board of Trustees last week that changes the state's transfer policy for prep students. Beginning this fall, students can go to any school they want on first entry, but once they establish eligibility at a high school, if they transfer to another school, they lose one year of athletic eligibility. There are exceptions, including a move, divorce, death or unforeseen situation.

UHSAA attorney Mark Van Wagoner said the group — which is made up of principals, school board members and superintendents — respects the state's open enrollment law.

"We have always tried to make the least burdensome rule to open enrollment," said Van Wagoner.

He said, however, that the proposed bill would create chaos.

"I know of no other league where a player can transfer from school to school or team to team without rules," said Van Wagoner.

Rep. Laura Black asked legislative counsel Angela Oakes Stallings if a student could play football at one school, basketball at a second school and baseball at a third school under the proposed legislative changes.

"Yes," Stallings said. "I think they could. As long as there weren't recruiting efforts."

It is an unprecedented move, according to Van Wagoner.

"You're creating a mess that no other state in the union has," he said. "This bill ruins competition and makes it unfair for 99 percent of the students engaged in competition."

He said he didn't always understand the legislative process, but knew the proposal as it's written would wreak havoc on high school athletics.

"I do know how sports work," he said. "I know what happens when you have no rules. You have no fairness."

Copper Hills principal Todd Quarnberg and superintendent of Rich School District Dale Lamborn said their respective organizations back the new UHSAA's rule.

"My school's morale depends on fair play," said Quarnberg.

Lamborn said the state's superintendents voted unanimously to support the UHSAA's new rule just last week.

"This (bill) does open up many, many unintended consequences," Lamborn said. He pointed out that the UHSAA is made up of people elected by the communities they represent and they deal on a regular basis with "the emotions of high school activities."

There was some discussion about whether or not the bill was constitutional, and Stallings said while Utah's high court has never ruled on the issue, the Oregon Supreme Court sided with its legislature over its activities association. The difference, however, was that Oregon's school superintendents backed the legislature's proposal, whereas in Utah, the state's superintendents back the UHSAA's proposal.

"Sometimes the emotion of athletics overrules the logic of academics," Lamborn said. "We have to be careful not to fuel that fire. We need to work together to make good changes that are best for kids."

Stephenson said they would not vote on the bill Wednesday and would continue to work on the issue.

e-mail: adonaldson@desnews.com

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