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

August 2, 2014

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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