Utah High School Activities Association committee will examine impact of socio-economics on high school sports

Published: Thursday, March 27 2014 9:15 p.m. MDT

SANDY — Matt Rickards watched the Kearns High soccer coach coaxing students to play for the school’s team and realized he had to do more than complain about a process he felt ignored the realities of prep competition.

“One of our coaches was walking down the hall and literally asking girls to come play because they needed to fill the team,” said the school’s head football coach. “At the time, we were competing in 5A, in a region with Bingham, Copper Hills, Riverton, and I thought, ‘How is it possible for us to even compete?’ ”

Rickards decided to investigate an assumption than many educators have theorized about for years — schools with more affluent populations have more success in extracurricular activities.

“One of my frustrations is that people know that socio-economic status should be considered across the state, but everybody had a defeatist mentality,” he said. Those he spoke with assumed that officials making the decisions understand the issues and simply choose to ignore them.

But the Utah High School Activities Association’s Board of Trustees listened to Rickard’s presentation on how poverty impacts win/loss ratios at Utah schools, as well as a presentation from the Ogden School District, and decided to reconvene the realignment committee to examine those issues in detail to see if they are being appropriately considered in region and classification assignments.

The board could have just approved the alignment the committee recommended in January, but some felt Wednesday night’s proposals were worth investigating.

While Region 3 representative Kim Horiuchi made the motion that eventually passed with a few 1A and 2A schools opposed, Norm Allred, Region 18’s representative, said he’d like to know for sure if there is any validity to the assertion that money matters.

“This way you’re addressing concerns that were raised at a public hearing,” said Tamara Lowe, who represents the Davis District.

What Rickards did was offer the board proof that schools with higher socio-economic status enjoy higher win/loss ratios. Those situations are exacerbated by the state’s open enrollment law, which allows students to attend any school that has room for them. They’re not allowed to transfer for athletic reasons, but most acknowledge this happens despite the UHSAA’s best efforts to stop or prevent it.

“With open enrollment, I’ve had many conversations with parents wanting to take their kids to and send them to Bingham because they feel like there are more opportunities because there is more money,” Rickards said. “It’s set up so the rich get richer and the poor get poorer. When parents feel like they have a student athlete who has any chance to play at the next level, they want to send them somewhere else.”

Rickards started by collecting data — student population, win/loss records, top 10 finishes and percentage of a school’s student body on free or reduced lunches. The last item is important because not only is it an indicator of a school population’s poverty rate, but students on free or reduced lunch are entitled to have their participation fees waived by a school. That means a school has less money to organize the same activities offered by schools where most of the students are paying fees, as well as participating in fundraisers and organizing booster clubs.

“This is not just an assumption on my part,” Rickards said. “The numbers are valid.”

Not only did the win-loss records show that more-affluent schools had higher winning records in all sports, he cited studies that confirm students from lower socio-economic situations struggle in the classroom.

“If they have a hard time learning in school, they’ll have a hard time learning skills on the basketball court or football field,” he said. “There isn’t any difference. Coaches are teachers.” While some on the UHSAA board expressed a desire to better understand both Ogden’s proposal, which offered solutions like counting an out-of-boundary transfer student as two, rather than one student, and Rickard’s proposal, others said it was a complicated and delicate discussion to bring to the alignment process.

Some suggested they could be accused of discrimination or of being arbitrary. But Rickards said the numbers support the assertion, and the right thing to do is to find a way to factor socio-economics into the alignment process.

“The facts are the facts,” he said. “I tried to be as thorough as I possibly could. I wanted to make sure I wasn’t just assuming things.”

Region 9 representative Craig Seegmiller said he worried that the proposals made a difficult process even more complicated.

But Rickards said it only seems complicated because the proposals are offering support for a theory. Once he found win-loss records, he said the rankings were fairly easy to calculate.

“It seems complicated because I did a lot of research to support the proposal,” he said.

He was pleased that the board will reconvene the realignment committee to investigate the issues raised by Ogden and Kearns officials because it’s important that all students feel like they have the opportunity to succeed, not just play.

“It’s learned helplessness,” he said. “If they don’t get an opportunity to be successful, then the only thing they expect is to lose and to fail. They start to be OK with it. Then you have low-effort output.”

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