Public schools and K-12 and Education & Workforce Development and High School Sports and Sports Business

Indiana legislators consider basketball tourney bill

January 11, 2012

State lawmakers who want to force a return to Indiana's old single-class high school basketball tournament said Wednesday the Legislature should have a role in that decision because of the tourney's decades-long cultural importance.

The head of the Indiana High School Athletics Association, however, said such an action would be a sign of "big government" getting involved with something that should be left to local school leaders.

A hearing before the state Senate's education committee renewed a debate in the Legislature that lawmakers have heard several times since the IHSAA began its four-class boys and girls basketball tournaments based on school enrollment sizes in 1998.

Bill sponsor Sen. Mike Delph, R-Carmel, said the current format has "failed miserably" and that the old tournament celebrated in the 1986 movie "Hoosiers" helped unite the state for decades. The committee held a nearly three-hour hearing on Delph's bill, which also has provisions to block school districts from starting their academic year before Labor Day and require the teaching of cursive writing.

Delph reminisced about watching tournament games with his grandmother as a child and following teams from places like Evansville, Connersville and New Castle.

"I learned the state of Indiana because of basketball," he said. "When we had a one-class basketball tournament it was a time that brought our state together."

IHSAA leaders defend the current tourney as promoting fairness by giving smaller schools a better chance to advance in their tournaments than when they sometimes had to face schools with perhaps a thousand or more additional students.

IHSAA Commissioner Bobby Cox said he hoped the Legislature would allow the organization's 408 member schools to decide how to run the basketball tournament.

"I think it's an example of big government imposing its will on a private organization that, quite honestly, has great representation," Cox said.

Brookville resident Jim Suhre told the committee he believed the state lost something "uniquely Hoosier" when the tournament was changed and hoped to see it changed back even though he was a four-year starter for a high school team that lost to bigger schools in the old tourney's early rounds.

He suggested putting the question up to a statewide voter referendum, saying "let people know that tradition is important."

Some legislators failed in the 1990s to force at least a voter referendum on the tournament format. The House in 2005 passed a resolution asking for the single-class tournament's return.

The debate over the teaching of cursive writing started after the state Department of Education in April dropped it as a required part of school curriculum and told the district that students will be expected to become proficient in keyboard use. It is unclear whether any schools have stopped teaching cursive writing.

A similar proposal from Delph on the school start date failed to clear the Senate last year.

Supporters argue that families lose out on summer vacation time together when school years start in mid-August as has become common in recent years and that a later start date would boost recreational and tourism businesses. Opponents say decisions about school calendars should be left up to local elected school boards.

Delph said the state constitution gives the Legislature full authority over public schools, but some committee members said they weren't sure these were issues with which they should become involved.

Cox said he expected Indiana sports fans would debate a return to a single-class tournament as long as there are still people alive who remember it.

"We're always going to have people that want to reach back and be nostalgic about the great old days and how great the tournament was," Cox said.

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