MIDVALE For decades, high school athletes haven't been allowed to participate in any practices or competitions for club programs during the high school season of that same sport.
That changed Wednesday when the UHSAA's Executive Committee voted to endorse a new interpretation for the limited team membership rule.
"The purpose of the rule is to prohibit duplicate participation (competition) on a similar team," the new interpretation reads. "Membership should not be the issue; participation should be. If a club team is inactive or if the student is inactive on the team (that is to say that the student does not represent the club team in competition) it would not be a violation of the rule for the student to attend practice with the other members of the team."
The clarification went into effect immediately, meaning that any prep athlete who's participating in a fall sport could theoretically start practicing with his or her club team today.
The UHSAA's original rule predated the rise of club sports and was originally written to protect church basketball leagues from an influx of varsity basketball players.
"In order to make sure that league was fair, the rule was enacted," said UHSAA attorney Mark Van Wagoner. "Over time, all of these other things have come up."
Specifically, Van Wagoner said participation on a club swim team in the Skyline area was the impetus for looking at the rule again.
Issues over club swimming inside Skyline's hugely successful swim program have been the subject of considerable discussion and much debate throughout Utah's swimming community since last winter.
For months, there were widespread rumors that a coach at the University of Utah would be creating a club swim team, which would've included a number of Skyline swimmers.
That never came to fruition, however, and it was thought that the issue was dead.
It all flared back up again, though, when a handful of Skyline swimmers and their parents decided to form a club team called Wasatch Front Fish Market.
That has caused considerable angst inside Skyline's swim program, which has won the last seven girls 5A state titles and seven of the last eight 5A boys titles.
When the breakaway swimmers were told they wouldn't be allowed to participate on Skyline's swim team this year because it would be against UHSAA rules, the issue was eventually brought before the UHSAA, which decided on altering the wording of its interpretation.
Inasmuch as the UHSAA's clarification will have an immediate major impact inside Skyline's swim program, however, it's also clear that the decision made by the executive committee will affect almost every sanctioned sport.
The UHSAA's club rule had been questioned a number of times over the years because of Olympic Development Programs, club programs and accelerated teams. The UHSAA has allowed students to participate in many of these programs because they were either just members of an inactive team or practicing with the non-high school team.
"Anybody who's any good plays their sport year round," said Van Wagoner of the rise of competition and club programs. "They just don't play their sport competitive while playing the high school season."
The other reason UHSAA officials chose to clarify the rule was that some aspects of the issue are outside their responsibility.
"I'm not certain a rule that precludes practicing is (relevant) to what we do," said Van Wagoner.
Executive Director Dave Wilkey said the association was already making exceptions to the rule and this just offers a uniform interpretation.
"We've been haggling with the rule for years," Wilkey said. "It's getting so complicated. But parents are saying let us do what we think is best for our children."
The new clarification doesn't mean specific high school coaches couldn't restrict membership on a club team during the high school season.
"Team membership rules can be more restrictive and always have been," Wilkey said. "We don't tell kids they can't ski, but some coaches do."
Given this new clarification, it will now be left up to coaches to make their own rules that prohibit club affiliation during the season should they choose to do so.
As long as coaches still have the authority, Kearns swim coach Chris Horne pointed out, he's OK with the new clarification.
"The head coach still has the power, so I am totally OK with this rule," he said. "I still have the choice as a head coach if someone were practicing with some club team and not at all with the high school I would have the choice if I wanted to let them compete or not."
Other coaches, inside and outside of swimming, weren't as pleased with the decision, however.A handful of coaches from various sports that were contacted for this story expressed displeasure over the clarification, arguing it will create new and unwanted problems for them.