If you're having trouble keeping up with the many fronts, and faces, of the sanctioning crises in high school sports, then you're not alone. Since beginning this series in late December, the emails have been pouring in. Pro and con, depending on your perspective. All agree that athletes deserve the opportunity to compete. But it's the abuses that led to the need for rules. Many in our sport believe that other sports are to blame for the recent crackdown. Still others believe that we don't have to look outside of our own to find good reasons to create and impose strict sanctioning guidelines. As this series continues, we'll examine as many issues as possible. However, the bottom line is, real kids are being hurt by the disagreements of adults. Great opportunities to see this generation's best against the best are being lost for the season, and maybe forever. And institutions and icons of our sport are frantically searching for ways to follow the rules and to simply let the kids do what they do - compete.
This installment on the sanctioning crisis takes the pulse of several of the hottest fronts - some with immediate impact, and some that could have an impact on the sport for many years to come. There's a banning in Boston as an elite 'sanctioned' athlete is missing the chance of a season to race against the best. There are interpretations upon interpretations about sanctioning forms that seem to say similar things, but aren't recognized by other states. There is a meet that is doing their own preemptive preventive measures to try to avoid the mess. And there's a possibility on the horizon that a major meet may be forced to choose between states. Oh, and there are rumors.
Banned in Boston
Senior Chris Barnicle of Massachusetts' Newton North HS had the cross country season of his dreams. That is, until Foot Locker finals when he didn't have anything left in the tank. Finishing 6th in a year he thought he could win, he was disappointed. So what is a talented athlete to look forward to? Why, track, of course, and more races for redemption. Barnicle's ultimate goal is the national 2-mile record in the spring. Which means a solid winter of training, including a few races at the shorter mile to test his mettle and his conditioning.
Enter the Boston Indoor Games. Barnicle lives close to Boston's Reggie Lewis Center, the indoor epicenter for much of New England. It's his school's home track for meets, and in fact, he has been known to run the seven miles to or from the track, depending on the day and the races he was scheduled to run.
The Boston Indoor Games, now in it's tenth year, is hosting a new Junior Mile for elite athletes on January 29th, complete with international entries. To attract the best preps, the race did not seek sanctioning. That would seem to favor an athlete like Barnicle. His school is a member of the Massachusetts Interscholastic Athletic Association (MIAA). After all, one way athletes have been avoiding the sanctioning problem this indoor season is to race in events that don't seek sanctioning - the Metropolitan Athletics Congress meets are one such avenue. New York athletes, as well as Massachusetts athletes, are not permitted to race against those whose schools are not members of or approved by their state association, IF THOSE MEETS SEEK SANCTIONING.
Here's where it gets weird.
Chris Barnicle wanted to race the Junior Mile at the Boston Indoor Games. According to his coach, James Blackburn, Barnicle received an invitation. But the MIAA wouldn't grant him a waver to run in the race. To add insult to injury, if this had been last year, there wouldn't have been a problem. In prior years, the Massachusetts Coaches Association has held a high school mile on the same weekend as the Boston Indoor Games. Because the race was administered by the coaches, and the weekend was sanctioned by MIAA, the invited athletes in the elite race had their results merged with the regular meet races with the complete understanding and approval of MIAA. This year, the coaches had to move their meet to another weekend. Bye-bye sanctioning. Bye-bye Barnicle. Blackburn says Barnicle is looking forward to the Millrose mile the following Friday, but that the Boston Elite Junior Mile would have been best for him. "It was the best level competition, and a better track. And (Foot Locker champ) Ken Cormier is coming. I just don't understand. It just hurts the individual."
Now weird gets ironic.
In the girls' Elite Junior Mile at Boston, Towson Prep star Devon Williams will get to race. As you probably know, Williams had not been permitted to race in sanctioned events at the New York Armory earlier this season because her school is not a member of, nor officially recognized by her state association in Maryland. And in this race on the 29th, she'll get to race against many of those same New York athletes who are not permitted to race against her in the "sanctioned" meets.
January is one thing. February is different.
No really, it is. Because less than a week after the Boston Indoor Junior Miles, when Barnicle can't race against New York athletes seven miles from his house in a publicly owned facility, he will be permitted to race against one of the same New York athletes at the Millrose Games. The difference is, the Millrose Mile is a sanctioned event. Hence, Barnicle can run. New York athletes can run. Lo and behold, Williams can't. Millrose is sanctioned, and she's not. And those New York girls? Fortunately for them, they're permitted to run in both Boston and New York. Back up a year to 2004, and, still sanctioned, the Millrose Games invites two runners from the Philadelphia Catholic League (PCL), along with Williams of Towson Catholic. Both PCL runners race. Williams doesn't race, but only because she is injured. On to 2005.
The states of Pennsylvania, New York, Massachusetts, Maryland and most others we have reviewed seem to be following very similar rules of eligibility. There are differences, such as New York permits 7th and 8th graders to compete at the varsity level. But generally, every state association or official governing group (the Philadelphia Catholic League, for one) aim to have the athletes be students first. They want fair competition. They have age restrictions. They have travel restrictions. They have award restrictions. Good rules, all.
What they don't seem to have - despite all 50 states having an official association affiliated with the National Federation of State High School Associations (NFHS), is a common piece of paper nor a common approach to the problem. Because the words are on the different pieces of paper, held by different people, with differing agendas, the interpretations are many.
Just imagine if they all got together and talked this thing out.
One of the main concerns expressed over recent weeks by parents, coaches and athletes is that the lines of communication don't seem to be working from state to state, with the exception of forms, checkboxes, and denials. However, sorting through some of the official-speak, there really is quite a bit of common ground.
New York - meet Pennsylvania.
New York says they would be fine with Pennsylvania's non-member schools if the Pennsylvania Interscholastic Athletic Association would simply check the box on the New York sanctioning form that says 'State Association Approved School." But PIAA Assistant Executive Director Jodi Good says they can't do that because, technically, the Philadelphia Catholic League schools are not approved by the PIAA. So they check 'No Jurisdiction'. However, the PIAA does have a formal method to give their member schools the OK to compete against the non-member schools. It's called the Supplement to Contract. Basically, each PIAA school has a contract with the PIAA to abide by the association's rules. For PIAA schools which want to compete, host, etc. against non-member schools, the member school is required to have the non-member school sign the Supplement to Contract. In short, the Supplement says the non-member school agrees to abide by all PIAA rules for eligibility. Sign it and you compete.
So what's the problem?
To the casual observer, the Supplement to Contract sounds a little like some form of approval of non-member schools who agree to follow PIAA rules. So if Pennsylvania can't check the box, maybe New York can take a closer look at what really happens just to their south - non-member schools compete according to PIAA rules if they want to compete against PIAA schools.
A rumor that the PIAA and NYSPHSAA (New York State Public High School Athletic Association) have an imminent meeting to resolve the issues is just that, a rumor. PIAA exec Good says neither she nor Executive Director Bradley Cashman have had contact from any NYSPHSAA officials to arrange such a meeting.
New York - meet Maryland.
There's a real Catch-22 in Maryland. According to the rumor-mill, Maryland's private schools can't be members of the Maryland Interscholastic Athletic Association (not to be confused with the MIAA in either Massachusetts or Michigan.) That would certainly seem to be a dilemma for schools like Towson Catholic and Georgetown Prep, two private schools that regularly have problems when trying to compete in sanctioned meets against teams or athletes from New York or Massachusetts. Both schools are members of their own associations.
There are two real problems with this perceived problem. First, the Maryland association doesn't seem to have an issue competing against the private schools from its own state. Secondly, there isn't anything preventing the state department of education in Maryland from changing the regulations to allow Maryland's private schools to join the association. M(d)IAA Executive Director Ned Sparks says "anything could happen." He sees the main obstacles as the private school's willingness to join, and the state's willingness to amend the master agreement it has through the education department. But to Sparks, that's not the issue. "We have a good relationship with private schools and really have no problems." He says Maryland leaves the scheduling of non-member schools to the local school. "Each county runs their own program, and they tend to police themselves. It has worked very well for years." Yet, just as in Pennsylvania, Maryland checks the "no jurisdiction" box when New York asks if they approve the non-member schools.
Again, to the casual observer, "worked very well for years." sounds vaguely like an approval.
New York - meet The Penn Relays.
This is the 111th year of the Penn Relays Carnival. They've seen a lot over the years. And while Carnival Director Dave Johnson can talk times, heights and distance from any decade, you can be sure he also knows the issues that have faced the sport. In a recent story in the Philadelphia Inquirer, Johnson said that if the sanctioning push doesn't change course, the meet could be back to separate races for public and private schools, even in the Championship of America races. "It would basically put us back to where things were in the 1920's and 30's. We don't want that."
Johnson's job as April approaches usually involves seedings and promotion. In recent years, sanctioning issues have been taking center stage. In 2004, they were forced to reseed some relays. Massachusetts public schools were forced to stay home to avoid competing against non-sanctioned schools. But New York relaxed a bit on their insistence after some of its member schools complained about the late notice, and especially since they already had hotel reservations, etc. As New York Assistant Executive Director Lloyd Mott said in an email, "we decided to allow our schools to participate without penalty this year." That brings us to 2005. Johnson says it's really a case of trying to address everyone's issues. "There are 18 states plus DC who send athletes to the meet. Everybody has some sort of issue, and two-thirds of them require contact." Johnson doesn't like to single out states, but says the challenges are focused on all eastern seaboard states, Massachusetts to Maryland.
Just like the PIAA's Supplement to Contract, Johnson says that Penn very clearly articulates the eligibility standards for the meet, and "those are the standards set by the PIAA." Part 2 of the Carnival high school eligibility rule says "Competition in the High School Division of the Relay Carnival is under the supervision of official representatives of the PIAA. To be eligible for competition in the Carnival High School events. a school must confirm to the following:" What follows, directed to those who are not members of their state association, is a notation that the schools must compete under standards which conform to or are more strict than those of their state association. Johnson says the Penn Relays rider requires the signature of both coach and school principal, "both athletic and academic."
That sounds a lot like everyone is already on the same page. Says Johnson, "two states can have the same language, and interpret it differently."
When last we left them, the PIAA and PCL were going to talk...
It hasn't happened. Yet. But according to Bishop McDevitt athletic director Pat Manzi, the Philadelphia Catholic League is trying to get some type of sanctioning agreement, "but I don't know what this is going to be." Manzi would like to know why the issue has become so hot in the past year. "We've been running in these meets for years. Right now, we're in the dark." In an effort to offer a solution, one parent even drafted an "Associate/Affiliate Membership Proposal" for the PIAA. So far, no action.
Should be PCL decide to join the PIAA, it's not that difficult.
Jodi Good, the assistant executive director of the PIAA, says the process is quite direct. The PCL requests a meeting, and makes a presentation to the staff of the PIAA. If approved, it's presented to the board and then voted on by the member school. Then the PIAA can check the "State Association Member School" box, and everybody is happy.
In South Carolina, as long as you're official, you're official. But...
The Taco Bell Classic is going into its 14th year. From just a few teams at the beginning, they grew to 145 schools with 2,000 athletes from ten states in 2004. So what's the concern about sanctioning? Meet Director Kevin Shaw says they don't want to lose what they have. Last year, they separated results of private schools from the New York teams to try to comply with what they thought were sanctioning concerns. No contact from New York. Just some preventive measures.
This year, because of all the fuss at the Armory and in Boston over sanctioning, they're going one step further. In their meet information, they state: "The Taco Bell Track & Field Classic is sanctioned by the National Federation of High Schools. In order for your team to participate, your State Association must be governed by the NFHS. If you are a member of an Independent School Association that is not governed by the NFHS you may not enter this meet."
And it's all to prevent the wrath of New York. Shaw says that the main reason for the strict sanctioning is out of loyalty to Bayshore NY. The team has been coming for four years, and started because it was a National Scholastic Sports Federation (NSSF - not affiliated with any of the state or the national association) event. Shaw isn't necessarily happy with the choice he feels he has been forced to make - and he would miss both Providence Day and Forsyth Country Day of North Carolina. Both schools have been participating for much of the meet's history.
However, should Bayshore choose to stay home or go to another meet, then, Shaw says, "we will probably open the meet back up. We would pull our New York sanction request."
New York - meet South Carolina.
Shaw says that in South Carolina, they don't have Supplements to Contract or forms with all-encompassing check boxes. "As long as the school is a member of an association, or a private league, then they're OK in South Carolina." According to Shaw, schools who are totally independent have been told to stay home in the past. The way Shaw sees it, a league or association is more likely to be following rules, so "they're sanctioned."
So will there be compromise, or confrontation?
In his recent interview with the Philadelphia Inquirer, the New York executive in charge of sanctioning, Lloyd Mott, said: "I'd hope that Penn Relays learned its lesson from what happened with Massachusetts and doesn't repeat the same mistakes. If they do, we'll be like Massachusetts. Our schools won't be allowed to go."
While those are not exactly the words you'd recommend for opening a dialogue with the Penn Relays, they do seem to capture the essence of the issue. In New York, they do it their way, and so will you.
But the Penn Relays' Johnson is still working to resolve each and every concern of a myriad of states with differing issues and priorities. "We're still working through various situations, trying to work out accommodations."
But what if the issue can't be resolved with New York and Massachusetts?, we asked. Would they be asked to stay home? "We wouldn't rule anything out at this point. Each (state) presents its own situation. We want to work with those who have the best interests of the entire school at heart, principals and athletic directors."
Glimmer of hope.
New York Executive Director Nina Van Erk says she is making a presentation in April to the NSFS on the issue. "Sanctioning is an ongoing issue. It's always discussed."
Talk fast. Please.