Fair Play?

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By Travis Jenkins

During a recent South Carolina High School League appellate panel hearing dealing with athletic realignment, a member of the panel told a group of school administrators and coaches that the word “fair” was subjective. Based on past practices and actions, it’s understandable how someone might hold that opinion where prep sports in our state is concerned.

Since we have a pair of Class A schools in Chester County, many of you probably remember a recent period of time when that classification, the state’s smallest, was dominated by private schools. Despite making up a tiny piece of the classification’s membership, they were winning roughly two-thirds of all state titles in all sports. They had been unbeatable in sports like soccer (no public school had ever won a boy’s Class A state title until last year and only once had a public school won the girl’s crown) and volleyball for some time, but no one seemed motivated to do anything about it until they also took over in baseball and football. When an idea was floated that non-public schools should be subject to a student-enrollment multiplier that would basically force them to play up in a bigger classification, state legislators (primarily ones who represented the districts in which the powerhouse private schools were located) started rattling some cages. They made a not-very-veiled threat that if private schools were treated any differently than public schools, they would initiate action to dissolve the SCHSL and put prep athletics under the purview of the State Department of Education. League officials basically had no choice but to shelve that plan. They also created the aforementioned appellate panel; a seven-member body appointed by legislative delegations from the state’s seven congressional districts, that is now the final arbiter for appeals to the league.

Public school coaches and administrators still wanted something done. Had private schools been cleaning everyone’s clocks competing on a level playing field, that would have amounted to whining, but that wasn’t the case. Non-public schools have the ability to offer scholarships, they aren’t really encumbered by strict attendance zones like public schools and have the ability to cap enrollment, thus allowing them to basically decide which classification they wish to compete in. That last one is a significant advantage. Lewisville High here in Chester County spent the past two years as one of the largest schools in Class A. The school added 20 or so students over that time and are now slated to move up to AA where they will be tiny in comparison to most of their competition. They appealed to stay down but that was overturned. They'd be more competitive matched up with schools their size and smaller than they will be in AA, but can't actively make that decision like non-public schools. By law they must take any child that lives in their attendance zone. They also have no control over who shows up. Whether they have talent walking the halls or not is a genetic crap shoot. I can't say a 6'4 receiver or a hard-throwing left-handed pitcher are more likely to be admitted to some non-public schools than their less-athletically gifted counterparts, but you can't say they aren't either.

Cash on hand at non-public schools can't be legislated but it should still be noted that they have the money to put together all-star coaching staffs, where public schools, smaller ones especially, lean on volunteers and folks from the community. Those are gigantic advantages that were playing out on the fields of play. Member schools voted overwhelmingly for a plan that would essentially tie the enrollment of private schools to that of the public school whose district they sit in. Once again, some powerful legislators came to the defense of schools that didn’t really need defending, asking the state attorney general’s office for an opinion on the legality of that plan. The opinion was that it would likely violate the equal protection clause of the Constitution and be judged as unlawful as a result. From Class A’s perspective, the problem kind of took care of itself when the SCHSL voted to go with five classifications instead of four starting with the 2016-’17 school year and built in a provision that any school within 50 students of the cutoff number at the top or bottom of a classification could be moved up-or-down to help balance region where need be. The largest Class A schools were suddenly AA schools, including all of the powerhouse non-public schools. Really, that just shifted the competitive to AA, but those are larger schools with more students and resources, so they are better equipped to compete than Class A schools, nearly all of which are rural schools in poor districts with tiny enrollment. Private schools won their share of AA crowns the past two years, but not as many and not in a fashion that was as overwhelming as in Class A in years past.

We’re basically starting over, though. If you look at the realignment that is supposed to take effect when the new school year comes in August, you’ll notice that seven of Class A’s 39 schools are charter schools and academies. None play football, so not much attention is being paid to them, some only offer a few sports, but it’s kind of amazing to see the quality of athletes many are attracting. Why would an all-state basketball player go to a start-up team with no history and no tradition of success? It’s a good question but it isn’t one I can answer. Class A coaches have told me off the record, though, that they’re at their wit’s end. They seem to lose the most players to these schools, then have to compete against them.

We also have a pair of schools (Oceanside Collegiate and Gray Collegiate) that offer full athletic programs, the ability to obtain two years of college credit, four-hour instructional days (with the student’s choice of morning or afternoon schedules) and four hours daily for the purpose of athletic training and practice. They are currently in AA along with all the private schools. A third school of that ilk is coming next year, right up the road in York County. A press release I got indicates enrollment will be capped at 600 and students from literally anywhere in the state can attend. So, a kid who lives in Lewisville’s attendance zone can’t go to Great Falls High, located 12 miles away in the same county. If he did and played a sport, Great Falls would have to forfeit games and pay large fines. That same kid could theoretically go to this new school 30 miles away in another county and be eligible to play any sport.

I have nothing against non-public schools. Quite the contrary, since they offer wonderful academic and athletic opportunities that benefit their students tremendously. What I question is whether it is equitable for them to be competing against public schools in the SCHSL for championships if they can ignore traditional attendance lines, cap enrollment and actively decide the make-up of the student body. Private schools had the benefit of legislators being in their corner previously and I believe all public schools, not just those in Class A and AA that are primarily impacted by the influx of non-public schools, deserve the same. I’m asking Sen. Mike Fanning, Rep. Dennis Moss, Rep. MaryGail Douglas or Rep. Greg Delleney (all of whom represent all or parts of Chester County), our own school board or anyone else empowered to do so to request an opinion from the state attorney general’s office asking if public schools are having their equal protection guarantee violated by having to compete athletically against schools that can cap enrollment, remain exempt from attendance lines and pick-and-choose their students. An attorney general’s opinion isn’t legally binding, but it could give some guidance to the league and legislators about how athletic business should be handled in the future and whether things are being handled fairly right now. People are free to personally believe that fairness is subjective, but it never should be in the eyes of the law.