When the governing body of high school sports meets in Stevens Point on April 16, its members will vote on an odd, special rule to require the Wisconsin Interscholastic Athletic Association to treat private school sports teams as though their schools were much larger.
It’s a bad idea. It solves no problems. It looks targeted more at Wisconsin parents’ ability to choose among various schools than equity in sports competition. Finally, it could open the WIAA to a noisy controversy that would prompt outside forces — possibly even the Wisconsin Legislature — to settle the discussion.
WIAA members proposing the idea have the right under the organization’s bylaws to call for the vote — and the problem is a legitimate one for discussion. But WIAA members should reject this idea wholeheartedly.
The problem is very real. Parents of budding star athletes are using enrollment options to shop around for high schools with prominent coaches and high-visibility teams to give their future stars greater opportunities for development, recognition and college scholarship offers.
It’s illegal under WIAA rules for schools to recruit students solely for their athletic skills. But there is nothing to stop parents from using their ability to select specific private schools or the public school open-enrollment process to shop for athletic programs. As a result, the state has an increasing number of powerhouse high school athletic programs that consistently rank in the top 10 high schools for basketball, football, wrestling, hockey — and lower-profile sports such as swimming, cross-country and softball.
The strong keep getting stronger.
But the proposed solution is no solution. Proponents argue that private schools have unique access to athletes through their prestige and tuition assistance. To level the playing field, so to speak, a number of small schools propose requiring private schools to count each student as 1.65 students for the purposes of placing them in competitive divisions. Presumably, that would force a number of small private schools that now play against tiny Divisions 3, 4 and 5 schools, into Division 2 or even Division 1. (Division 2 schools have more than 600 students, while Division 1 school enrollments exceed 1,200.)
This year’s poster child for the problem might be Whitefish Bay’s Dominican High School, a private, Catholic school of under 300 students with annual tuition of around $11,000. Dominican just won its third straight Division 4 boys basketball championship with the help of NBA prospect Diamond Stone, a 6-foot-10-inch junior from Milwaukee and the son of All-American Bob Stone, who played for the University of Wisconsin-Whitewater in the 1970s.
But here’s the problem. Most of the state’s athletic powerhouses are public high schools, not private. So applying a playing-field leveler only to private schools looks more like punishment for success — or even possibly an attack on parents’ ability to choose — rather than a serious attempt at high school sports equity.
Because the solution is controversial, it will invite criticism of the WIAA, including questions about who should govern high school sports. The WIAA can’t possibly make everyone happy. But even critics would agree that the WIAA works hard to be fair in the volatile and sometimes contentious community of high school sports.
The last thing Wisconsin and the WIAA need are state lawmakers or the governor (of either party) calling the shots in high school sports.
Even the evidence for the “1.65 solution” is weak. It has been tried in other states, including Illinois, where it hasn’t worked even though it applies to both public and private schools. It doesn’t even change the landscape much. The multiplier would bump Dominican from Division 4 to Division 3, where it would face such schools as Lodi, Elk Mound, and D-3’s champion, Brown Deer.
So, if it passes the rule, the WIAA will generate a lot of bad feelings and face a lot of heat, including possible outside political pressure, only to see Diamond Stone compete against slightly larger schools.
That non-solution solution makes no sense — and the idea should be rejected. The problem is real. The remedy should be, too.
Michael Flaherty is a Madison-based writer who specializes in public affairs and public policy. He admits he was a lousy high school athlete.