The high school eligibility debate

This post originally appeared on our old blog on August 1, 2014. Recently, Gregg Doyel took up a similar issue in the Indy Star. At Indiana Explained, we like to stay ahead of the times. 

Hey Hoosiers! Today, we’re looking at the Indiana High School Athletic Association, or IHSAA. This is the governing body for high school sports. Think the NCAA, but without the Scrooge McDuck-sized Money Bin.

The IHSAA is in the news because Eron Gordon. Eron is the little brother of NBA player Eric Gordon, and the IHSAA just ruled him ineligible for his junior season because he transferred from North Central to Cathedral.

Now, in Indiana it’s OK for kids to transfer from school to school. It happens all the time for all sorts of reasons. But the IHSAA, which sanctions the sports, says you can’t transfer for athletic reasons. Of course, nobody who follows high school sports is surprised Cathedral is getting dinged for recruiting. That school handles more transfers than the New York City subway system.

It’s generated controversy in large part because Eron is so good at basketball, but also because both Cathedral and North Central (per IHSAA bylaws) signed statements saying this all was on the up-and-up. The IHSAA investigated and disagreed and said the violation was “blatant”.

So writing an opinion piece for Indiana Forefront, Curt Smith who knows a lot about both public policy and athletics, said the General Assembly needs to step in. He writes,

the fact [the IHSAA] is the first line is wrong and should be changed by the Indiana General Assembly. It should have no role in granting access or blocking participation in an extra-curricular activity paid for by parents, patrons and in most cases taxpayers, not the IHSAA.

So let’s get to the bottom of this. I do consider myself an expert, because it’s an issue I’ve been involved in since I was 16.

That’s right. That’s my award-winning high school cover story for the Indy Star’s Attitude Weekly section back in 2000. The piece talked about (surprise!) IHSAA eligibility rules and the calls for the General Assembly to get involved. In politics, there is nothing new under the sun.

The more famous cries for state government to get involved in IHSAA affairs have been in regards to the switch from a single-class to a multi-class basketball tourney back in 1997. Just a couple sessions ago, Senator Mike Delph attempted to inject state government into that debate as well, but that’s a Indiana Explained for another time.

The legislature certainly has a right to regulate education. It’s right there in Article 8 of the Indiana Constitution. But while Article 8 calls out moral, intellectual, scientific, and even agricultural improvement, we don’t see athletics in any of it.

The IHSAA was started because there needed to be a body to regulate high school sports. Before the IHSAA, nobody could agree on standard rules, and high schools had the shady practice of bringing in in non-students to play for their teams (sound familiar?). It’s a 501(c)(3) non-profit, and membership is voluntary by the principals of each school. It costs a one-time fee of $2,000 and you have to be accredited. No big deal.

The public policy question at hand is whether high school sports are a big enough problem that the government needs to intervene. When a non-profit entity makes an unpopular decision, do Hoosiers want government leaders stepping in? Or do we leave it to the free market to decide? After all, if a principal doesn’t like how the IHSAA runs things, the school can leave. And if enough schools feel disenfranchised, a new, competing body could be formed.

I think elected officials in general want to be involved in sports for a couple reasons. One, because the people like sports, and two because they themselves like sports. That’s why Congress wants to weigh in on steroids and strikes and concussions and the BCS.

I understand the temptation. I really do. But when was the last time you were watching a sport and said, “You know what this game needs? More government!”

Maybe the era of school choice in Indiana has muddled this issue more than ever.

The eligibility issue will be sussed out over time. There’s an extensive appeals process (which actually includes a panel appointed by the Superintendent of Public Instruction). And maybe the era of school choice has made this issue more muddled than ever. These days, any parent can pick the school that’s best for their child and send them there, whether it’s the public school across town, a public charter or private. But the purpose of the school choice movement is to empower parents to make the best academic decisions for their kids, not open up recruiting season for 14-year-old athletes.

I think decision-makers would be wise to keep in mind the words from the IHSAA bylaws.

…athletics is a privilege which must not be permitted to assume a dominant position in a School’s program….The enrollment rule discourages any and all decisions which subordinate academic decisions to athletic decisions.

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