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.
This is where the majority of the controversies, misunderstandings and heartaches occur.
Many transfers are for athletic purposes, and parents try to figure out ways around the rules. I sat through a large majority of the UHSAA's transfer hearings from August until November, and I couldn't believe the lengths some parents went in trying to get around the rules. I also couldn't believe some of the difficult situations parents and their children were caught in through no fault of their own.
I have some suggested solutions, although with the way high school sports has evolved, it may be time to re-evaluate the purpose of prep sports and how club and accelerated leagues have both enhanced and ravaged high school programs.
Today's high school sports are very different from the universe envisioned in 1927.
Solution No. 1: Allow coaches to talk with parents during a school's open house, usually held during the open-enrollment period. Only the stupid coaches will make promises. Most parents just want to know what a program offers and what's required. Parents concerned about music or theater commitments are allowed to explore those programs and when something is a meaningful aspect of your child's high school experience, parents should at least be able to ask questions before they commit.
Solution No. 2: No more mercy on transfers. If a student transfers after establishing eligibility, he or she cannot play varsity sports for one year. Students can still participate in athletics at a sub-varsity level or at practices, as that supports the idea that simple participation is the purpose.
Allowing a loophole of any kind will lead to cheating, and in the case of full-family moves, it allows the rich to cheat, while poorer students are forced to sit out. It also eliminates the nearly impossible task of trying to decide who is lying.
Dedicated athletes, who truly haven't been recruited, can also participate in club sports. The only sport that doesn't have a private option is football, so that would be the only sport for which I'd allow eligibility hearings.
Solution No. 3: Have principals submit rosters after tryouts and have all those rosters (not just the teams that win) audited at the district level. Any challenges to eligibility should be complete by the first week of region play. After that, the students are assumed to be eligible and any challenges lost.
Solution No. 4: If the UHSAA is going to continue to have avenues of appeal, they need to establish a smaller pool of hearing officers. Currently they draw from the Executive Committee or Board of Trustees, depending on the hearing. Having a half dozen designated members of the Executive Committee and Board of Trustees will provide more consistency and accountability. Mercy shouldn't depend on random luck of the draw.
Solution No. 5: Establish an enforcement arm of the UHSAA. Currently the duty to investigate and enforce the rules falls to principals, teachers, coaches and athletic directors. This is unfair and ineffective. Many feel the process penalizes those who try to enforce the rules, rather than those accused of breaking them, so they do not report what they see or hear.
Like the NCAA, the UHSAA should investigate allegations on its own, with its own staff, so that coaches can report, even anonymously, information that a UHSAA investigator could then pursue.
Solution No. 6: The rule the UHSAA should focus on is undue influence. I believe most of the recruiting that occurs in high school sports comes from parents and boosters. It isn't hard to convince a hopeful parent that little Suzy could be the next Serena Williams with the right coaching. Every parent wants to believe the compliments heaped on their child. So go after boosters and start banning them from the sidelines, stands or from having any association with prep programs.
There are a number of ways the state could go in the next few years. After five state audits of high school programs we know there are millions of dollars invested in sports, music and drama programs at Utah high schools.
After a difficult year, the state's high schools have some questions to answer about how they want to handle the ever-changing landscape of high school sports.
My suggestions only deal with some of the problems, but as the UHSAA membership considers changes to its rules this winter, I hope it will consider the kinds of changes that will incorporate the values of the past and the realities of the present.
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