Monday, August 27, 2007

Taking Their Marbles and Going Home: Public School Officials and the Politics of Being a Bad Sport

The Kentucky High School Athletic Association (KHSAA) was recently rebuffed by state lawmakers when it tried to institute a plan that would have placed restrictions on private school athletic programs. A subcommittee of the General Assembly slapped down KHSAA's Proposal 2, which would have required students transferring from public to private schools--or vice versa--to sit out a year of athletic eligibility.

The rejection by lawmakers took the form of a 6-0 vote, and some public school administrators are not taking the loss lying down. Wilson Sears, a superintendent from Somerset, has placed himself at the head of a small band of public school officials, who, upset at private schools that he thinks enjoy a competitive advantage, are now threatening an athletic boycott of private schools.

In short, they are rattling their sabres and chanting "They're being mean to us!"-- words that apparently pass among some public school administrators as a compelling battle cry.

These public school officials have been getting increasingly upset that private schools, which make up a minority of the members of KHSAA, have been winning so many state athletic championships. The public schools have blamed this in large part on the fact that private schools are able to recruit athletes without having to worry about district boundaries.

In other words, public schools, which have carved up the geography and imposed strict requirements that students can attend only the schools they say they can attend, are upset that private schools don't have to do this.

And this is the fault of private schools?

Private schools operate by something called "choice." No one has to go to them. And parents can send their kids to any one they want, no matter where they live and where the school is located. This way of operating schools has resulted in better academic performance and, now, it seems, better athletic performance.

But Sears and his band of very unmerry men, who work in a system that is now being shown up not only academically, but athletically, are determined to require that private schools abide by the same policies that have apparently dragged their own schools schools down.

Why, instead of trying to impose on private schools the same policies that have put public schools at such a disadvantage, doesn't Sears start advocating that the policies that have so benefited private schools be tried out in public schools? Why, instead of requiring that everyone be brought down to his level, can't we try to bring everyone up the level of those he thinks enjoy such an advantage?

This, of course, will never happen, because it goes against the very ethos of the public school establishment and the officials who are charged with protecting it from competition.

In fact, the irony in this new debate over athletics is that athletic programs were the one place, with the exception of Title IX restrictions (may a plague be upon them), which was free from the cloying egalitarianism that has infected every other aspect of public schools. On the basketball court and on the gridiron, no one has any illusions about everyone being equal, no one is held back so that everyone else can catch up, and students are allowed not only to cooperate, but to compete.

The permissivist philosophies taught at teachers colleges that discourage teacher-directed instruction in the classroom, replace discipline with psychology, and promote "child-centered" education are noticeably absent from sports programs. Sports programs are pure meritocracies where the coach is in charge, discipline is swift, individual accomplishment is acknowledged, and there are no excuses.

In athletic programs, excellence is rewarded, and failure has a cost.

The first attempt by public school officials in KHSAA was to separate public and private school athletic competition completely. That way, public schools would never have had to face the better private school teams at all, and no one would know how they compared to one another. This may help some schools and the administrators who run them look better, but it isn't necessarily better for individual students. As one Danville student pointed out at the time, it's good for student athletes to face good opposition. It makes them better athletes.

A student, who would be detrimentally affected by a policy Sears appears to want to attempt again, knows this, but Sears himself is apparently oblivious to it. These people don't really want excellence; they only want the appearance of it. Excellence comes from strong competition, not competition neutered by self-serving political machinations.

The fact is that inequalities are going to plague athletic competition, public and private, whatever policies KHSAA implements. Public magnet schools in Louisville, for example, have similar advantages over other public schools that Sears and his friends charge that only private schools have: they can recruit throughout Jefferson County, a fertile area for athletic talent. Male does this. Manual does this. So do other such schools.

Where is the outcry?

Some schools even merge with each other to get a leg up. Recently, Harrodsburg High School was ingested by Mercer County High School. Various reasons were given for the change, but every knows the real reason: the change will result in better sports teams.

But isn't this unfair? Yes it is. It's also unfair that public schools in larger cities have an advantage over rural schools. For that matter, it's unfair that some public schools have better athletes than other schools. If the Sears Gang is really concerned with fairness, it could find plenty of problems to solve in its own back yard.

Some public school members of KHSAA are also upset that private schools lure good athletes with scholarships.

Excuse me? Did it ever occur to them that the public schools are already giving every student in their school, not just some, a free education? Doesn't that give them an monstrously unfair advantage over private schools when it comes to athletic recruitment? Shouldn't that give private schools an excuse to throw a temper tantrum and try to pass regulations penalizing public schools?

Ironically, no competent coach would abide the attitude from an athlete that some public school officials have been displaying on this issue. If a player were to throw his helmet down and complain that the other team had an unfair advantage, the coach would tell him to suck it up and get out there and play anyway.

Someone needs to tell this to Sears and his friends as they go around the state recruiting other school districts to join them in their not very sporting attempt to take their marbles and go home.


Anonymous said...

I wonder where Martin Cothran went to high school, St. X or Trinity?

Martin Cothran said...


Good try. I went to Miraleste High School, a public high school in Rancho Palos Verdes, California.

Anonymous said...

Excellent analysis of the situation. Perhaps the only "fair" solution is for the officials to prohibit keeping score and announce all players are winners.

Anonymous said...


As a Board member of a public district that is tied for the most state championships in state history, I would tell you that our coach would agree with you: bring it on! Our team is consistently among the best coached and best conditioned teams on the field, public or private.

The problem is that public schools are limited by the communities that they serve, (per KHSAA). As good as coaching and conditioning are, they are sometimes trumped by the fact that the talent pool in a real community, any community, is necessarily limited.

Parochial schools, on the other hand, play by a completely different set of rules. Not our rules. KHSAA rules. By Parochials being able to cast the net widely in recruiting teams in a quasi-collegiate fashion, it is not uncommon for our teams to play, (albeit courageously) teams that are,to the last man, a head taller than our team.

Should you have the right to do so? Absolutely! But so should we. Let's not BS ourselves by calling special rights equal rights. Let's not pretend that this is a level playing field. The double standard part is what is absurd.

Teams that have no restrictions on recruiting should not be held up as champions over teams that have all kinds of restrictions. It is like we are, for all our hard work, playing the game with one arm and one leg tied behind our backs, (and still winning).

The defining moment for me was a couple of years ago when we had a transfer who had lived in one suburb, played for a parochial school in another and there was no question. Once he established residence in our community, (not required under the rules that applied when he attended parochial school) the KHSAA ruled that an apartment did not constitute adequate proof of residence. Excuse me? Even after jumping through absurd number of hoops, we had to forfeit the whole year's schedule. We still won state.

I could care less about the scholarship thing and like a good game as much as the next guy. My point is, apply restrictions equally or not at all. If Lexington Catholic can draw from any parochial elementary in the diocese, then allow public schools comparable latitude to recruit as well. Get out of my face with the bit that an apartment is not a residence.

If that ever happens, I will join you, (and our coach) in saying: "Play ball." Until then, our coach / teams will continue to offer the "big boys" a run for their money.

Anonymous said...

So you grew up in a place where an actor is Governer, 60 year mortgages are the norm, and plastic surgery is as common as trees, that explains it...

What private school in KY do your children attend?

Anonymous said...

The issue of recruiting is only part of the problem. I think the issue is money... pure and simple. How much do public school athletic coaches get paid? In JCPS a head coach gets $4000...that doesn't even cover gas $ to the field everyday, and they have to hold second and even third jobs to make ends meet. What do private school head coaches paid? Enough to call coaching their career. And what about the many assistant coaches? Most in the public school programs don't get paid at all, and rush to practices from their blue-collar jobs for not much more than the love of the game and the warm fuzzy feeling they get from helping these become successful on the field. To say public and private should compete for the same championship is ludicrous. Public schools overcome many more obstacles everyday than just next weeks opponent...private schools enjoy cushy relaxation in financial worries, kids with greater support at home, seemingly unlimited state-of-the-art facilities, and coaches getting paid well for what they love to do. And as for your comment about every public school kid getting a free should be ashamed at your comparison and lack of compassion for what teachers, administrators, and students in public schools sacrifice everyday for the greater good of the communities of this country. Private means priveleged. PERIOD.

Martin Cothran said...


"So you grew up in a place where an actor is Governer, 60 year mortgages are the norm, and plastic surgery is as common as trees, that explains it...

"What private school in KY do your children attend?"

Well, I can tell I have struck a sacred cow when the personal insults start.

Anonymous said...

u have not struck a sacred cow
you are just not open minded
you are not looking at what is best for the majority
you are not educated on the education system
it seems like you just want to take the argumentative side to this and everything else. its not about fair and not fair, its about learning to work hard in the classroom as well as on the fields, and when you do this you reap the rewards.
BUT with the way it is setup the rewards are not there cause the wealthy group takes them all
which is the private group
and you cannot compare the few traditional schools and the few left over alumni powers to the basic everyday school