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LOPRESTI: IHSAA’s biggest contest: Transfers vs. wild, wild West

August 2, 2014
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mike lopresti sportsThe commissioner of the IHSAA sat at his desk, surrounded by the trappings of the Transfer Age. On his computer screen was information about a coming appeal hearing. Nearby, paperwork for a couple more. Within easy reach, a rulebook that devotes 12 pages to transfer eligibility and undue-influence regulations.

“If you don’t have transfer rules,” Bobby Cox was saying, “then it’s the wild, wild West.”

There is a lot of noise outside his office window, and not just the traffic on North Meridian Street. Athletes have transferred since the peach basket days, but now the world is different. Indiana’s open enrollment, the conspicuous example of the mass migration of college athletes, the influence of youth and AAU programs with their easy promises of glory—all promote a transient landscape. And a gale wind to blow against the IHSAA rule prohibiting transfers for athletic purposes.

There were 44 appeal hearings for transfer eligibility all of last school year. Cox had 10 slated for the coming year before the end of July. The IHSAA already made summer headlines by saying no to Eron Gordon’s North Central-to-Cathedral travel itinerary, with appeal pending.

This is rush hour for athletes moving hither and yon, and the IHSAA is trying to be a traffic cop. Good luck on that one.

“The reality is, this organization was formed 111 years ago and they’ve had rules about transfers ever since,” Cox said. “The old story goes that former commissioner [Phil] Eskew’s brother was playing baseball at a high school. They go to a school to play, get off the bus, and the battery for the opposing team is the battery of the Louisville Colonels semipro team. The coach got so angry, he got on the bus, put on his uniform, and played shortstop. You can’t have that.

“If we didn’t have rules, kids would be transferring all over the state primarily and singularly for athletics. We are trying to make sure in Indiana, we don’t let the athletics tail wag the school dog.”

A perfectly sound argument. But. Under open enrollment, a student can change schools because of the choir, the drama department, art, band, better cafeteria food. Anything and everything, no questions asked. Except athletics. Rather tricky, is it not?

“Before open enrollment, there was a [deterrent]. It was called tuition,” Cox said. “Now, that [deterrent] has been removed. That opens the floodgates of movement.”

Understandable, too, are school corporations welcoming transfers of every variety, since the state funds public education by paying out cash per student. So logic and legislation tug the IHSAA in every direction. In the middle, Cox mans his post and maintains, “If we relax that rule, we compromise our purpose.”

To ask a parent to explain a student transfer—as the IHSAA requires—is to invite some, uh, creative reasons. They can utter every word but the A word. Bottom line, does Cox get fibbed to?

“Oh, yeah,” he answered. “When we get into that review committee hearing, they sit across that room under oath and lie through their teeth. It’s unbelievable, some of the stories. We must have the best welding schools in the country. We have kids who transfer for welding, plumbing—I’ve seen every one of them.”

Cox noted that, of the 4,000-some transfers every year, 85 percent usually get full eligibility, many of the rest get limited eligibility—meaning they can play junior varsity. Fewer than 1 percent are ruled ineligible.

But the cases keep coming, and the questions don’t go away. In a new age of open enrollment, how can the IHSAA keep order with old school rules? Why ask parents to lie? But on the other hand, might total freedom of movement turn into a circus? Some would suggest it already has.

A few words from Bobby Cox, before he went back to preparing for his next hearing:

His philosophy: “I tell our membership all the time, we are different than any other part of athletics. We’re different than pro sports, we’re different than collegiate sports. These four years are formative years when we’re teaching kids. We have to protect our little niche.”

On the influx of lay coaches, many hired because of their AAU affiliations and influence: “I do believe when you get a non-teaching coach, you’re going out on a limb. Unfortunately, our non-teaching coach population is growing. That’s not to say they’re bad people, because they’re not. But in many instances, they don’t understand education-based athletics. They understand athletics, but there’s a difference, and we’re trying to maintain that difference.”

On change: “I sense among our membership there is a growing sentiment to relax our transfer rules, modifying them so we’d reduce the number of hearings. We’re about our membership. If our members want to change and that’s what our board votes on, we’ll enforce it.”

The future: “I think the next 10 years, high school sports is facing a crossroads. We’re the only country in the world that does this. They don’t have school sports in Europe; they play in the clubs. But I think there’s no greater experience than having the opportunity to wear the name of your school across your jersey. That’s what we’re trying to protect.”

The dilemma is, how.•

__________

Lopresti is a lifelong resident of Richmond and a graduate of Ball State University. He was a columnist for USA Today and Gannett newspapers for 31 years; he covered 34 Final Fours, 30 Super Bowls, 32 World Series and 16 Olympics. His column appears weekly. He can be reached at mlopresti@ibj.com.
 

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  • Losing Battle
    The sentiment from Mr. Cox is nice, and it is/was a legitimate standard to protect, but as much as I hate to say it, probably antiquated, and likely not relevant to most of today's athletes or their family...like Milan winning the state championship...a relic of a bygone era...it is a similar thing to school choice for students...for many people, school choice is code for the opportunity to choose a school where their kids don't have to attend with "undesirables" (read that anyway you want...covers race, underachievers, drug and gang culture, everything...school choice is state supported program that has inevitably resulted in re-segregation of schools...whether you think that is bad or good, let's take our rose colored glasses off). Kids who can really play, like Gordon, are seen mostly with their AAU programs anyway, that is when the NCAA coaches can really court them, so the AAU program is more important that the high school program anyway, other thatn symbolically...the high school they play at is mostly immaterial with regard to their college options and pro aspirations, it is only for hardware and trophies, an item for an athletic resume...as the state eventually bowed to the "majority rule" and created classes for basketball, so to they will eventually do as other states have done and allow transfers, recruiting (which has always gone on...Everett Case, etc.) and an open system...Mr. Cox is protecting a standard that isn't relevant to a lot of people today. As I am from a former basketball hotbed (Anderson), I can assure you from many situations I know about personally that the transfer rules have been haphazardly (and at times vindictively) enforced...member institutions have principals, administrators, serving on IHSAA committees and advisory boards, and those people influence decisions made in individual cases. The IHSAA would deny this, but they are like any other sanctioning body...dependent on the membership for their existence. Enjoyable article nevertheless, and Mr. Cox is likely a good man trying his best to maintain some sort of order in a chaotic situation...regardless of what Gordon is or is not allowed to do, he'll likely be in the pros in 3-4 years anyway...
  • Ridiculous
    IHSAA is a joke. If they were concerned about the kids they would find a way for the player to play regardless of circumstance. Who cares if all the best players go to the same school, they still need to gel and become a team. Not to mention, current rules just shift the recruiting down to 8th grade instead of during the high school years. The common kids who transfer are doing so for reasons other than academics but IHSAA penalizes them. Why isn't it in the best interests of the kids to let them go where they want? Transferring for academics or athletics is a victimless crime.
  • Not That Simple
    This is a good piece and shows the dilemma Bobby Cox and the IHSAA face. But there is a lot more to it than that. In their legitimate desire to avoid transfers for athletic reasons, the IHSAA has made it virtually impossible to transfer for legitimate reasons and continue to play varsity high school sports. Student-athletes who are legitimately trying to improve their lives by, for example, avoiding bullying or a drug sub-culture they were previously associated with are routinely given "limited eligibility" (a polite term for the denial of eligibility, since the result is the ineligibility for VARSITY athletics). The problem is these student-athletes and their families seem to face a presumption that they are lying, or that they do not have legitimate reasons to leave their school, simply because they are also athletes. The IHSAA should be praised for their efforts to keep high school athletics clean, but that effort has produced casualties -- kids who make good, tough decisions to leave their schools but, as a result, lose the opportunity to play sports at the varsity level.

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