Rewriting the rules

-A A +A
By Travis Jenkins

For a long time, the South Carolina High School League (this state’s governing body of prep athletics) has worked under the slogan “An athlete is not crowned unless he competes according to the rules.” That saying doesn’t mention anything about everyone competing according to the same rules, however, and it’s easy to see why.

Anyone who follows any high school sport in South Carolina knows that private and charter schools have won an outsized portion of state titles across all sports for a long time now. When the vast majority of those schools resided in Class A (the state’s smallest classification) they won two-thirds of all state crowns awarded despite making up less than 10 percent of the classification membership. The most glaring example of that dominance came in 2014, when they won state titles in 12 of 16 Class A sports. So pronounced was their dominance, that at the time no public school had EVER won the Class A boys soccer title and only once had a girls soccer team from a public school won state. Christ Church established a national record for consecutive boys state soccer crowns and Bishop England (at the time the only private school competing in AA) did the same in volleyball, a string that stretched for almost two decades, continued when the school moved to AAA and was only ended this school year. Christ Church also set the state record for consecutive wins in football.

If all that success was the result of nothing other than harder-working athletes and better coaches, I would have no gripe of any kind. I don’t begrudge success that is earned, but that isn’t what was happening. Private and charter schools have the ability to recruit (which is against the league’s bylaws), they can cap their enrollment (thus giving them the ability to determine which classification they will compete in) and they have no fixed attendance lines, meaning they can draw students from anywhere. Until the last two years, they also resided exclusively in Class A and AA, home to the state’s smallest, often poorest schools. Those are all tremendous advantages, ones that have certainly manifested themselves on the fields of play over the years. Think about this…Lewisville High School in our county saw its enrollment increase just slightly (by about 20 students) from one recent reclassification to another and as a result moved up from Class A to AA. Lewisville didn’t want to go up, they petitioned to stay down in Class A where they had always been, but they were told “no” and are now competing with schools nearly twice their size. Imagine if the school could have made the decision that they liked being one of Class A’s bigger schools instead of one of AA’s smallest, felt they could better compete there and decided not to accept anymore students. That would be quite a competitive advantage wouldn’t it? Unfortunately for Lions athletics, you can only imagine that happening because our state constitution mandates that they HAVE TO accept and educate any child in their attendance area. What if Lewisville, hit hard by the graduation of a very talented senior class, could pull a few linemen and a receiver from Great Falls and maybe a point guard and a left-handed pitcher from Chester? Well, if they tried, they would be heavily fined, likely placed on probation and barred from the playoffs. Even though all three schools are in the same county and separated by only a few miles, attendance lines can’t be crossed. That is a stark contrast to private and charter schools. Legion Collegiate (in York County) will be opening next school year and openly touts that students who live anywhere in the state can come there. The website of High Point (which just won the Class A boys basketball title) says the same thing. So, a kid who lives in Great Falls can’t go to Lewisville, located eight miles away in the same county, but can go to Legion, 30 miles away in another county.

At one point, the league did attempt to do something about the flagrant inequality with a so-called multiplier plan. Basically, a private or charter school would have to compete in the classification of the public school whose district they physically sit in, a plan that had wide support among member schools. The rationale was that the private or charter school had access to the same number of students as the public school whose district they sit in. Members of the league’s executive committee weren’t terribly receptive and legislators from districts that house the biggest and most successful private schools started squawking. Some of their arguments were outlandishly stupid, like saying that the league was targeting private schools because some are religiously affiliated. Most followed the old, oft-repeated line that it would be unconstitutional and unfair to treat private and charter schools differently in any way than their public counterpoints. Funny thing, I’ve never heard a single one of those legislators argue about how unfair it is for public schools to have to follow rules private and charter schools don’t. Wonder why?

I’ve given up trying to make the argument about non-public schools recruiting. My eyebrows are certainly raised when multiple all-state players flock to a brand new school that has no tradition, a literal abandoned storefront of a campus and lacks even a gym to play or practice in, but it’s difficult to prove recruiting is happening and it is rarely enforced anymore anyway. However, Legion plainly states in releases and news stories it is capping enrollment at 600, something no public school can do. They, High Point and others draw from multiple-county areas without repercussions, something no public school can do. Those things make a difference and create an uphill battle to competitiveness. The massively outsized state title success of non-public schools tells you that.

In the past, I advocated that private and charter schools simply be kicked out of the league unless they accept all comers and provide a defined attendance area within their home counties. That isn’t realistic and isn’t going to happen. Legislators, as we’ve seen before, will get involved at that point. They’ve threatened to dissolve the league outright before and put high school athletics under the auspices of the state department of education. They’ve mandated (without actually mandating) that any school in the state that wishes to join the league can’t be stopped from doing so. I think there is a middle ground, though, one that allows teams to compete on equal footing while also allowing anything that calls itself a school to be a league member.

To have a state championship for any sport, there must be at least 12 competing teams. This is an issue in Class A where there is a scarcity of soccer and cross-country programs. By my count, the number of non-public schools in the league well exceeds that number. So, allow them to be league members, place them in regions alongside public schools, but then come the post-season, break them out into a statewide private/charter playoff bracket in any sport where at least 12 such schools compete. This isn’t as far flung as it might sound. Remember that until two years ago, Lewisville and Great Falls competed in the same region, but come playoff time one went to the “Big” Class A playoff bracket while one wen to the “Little” one. Same thing happened in AAAA. That move would likely leave some non-public schools competing against public ones in football (many of the newer charter schools don’t field football teams) but it would provide needed relief in many other sports. The start-up academies whose rosters are essentially AAU all-star squads can play against each other and compete for a trophy that is just as big and shiny as the ones public schools vie for and public schools can have the playing field leveled. Everyone will be competing against teams operating g by the same standards.

This has nothing to do with the teams or students at private schools or charters. They are all doing exactly what the rules of the league allow. I like the idea of athletes not being crowned unless they compete according to the rules, but we are well past due to have some of those rules re-written.