Commentary

Debate over national high school championships rages on

Updated: February 25, 2010, 3:54 PM ET
By Matt Winkeljohn | Special to ESPNRISE.com

If you are among those looking for legitimate national championship tournaments in high school sports, there is good news and bad.

St. Thomas Aquinas
Scott PurksWould St. Thomas Aquinas still be crowned champion if it faced teams in a national championship tournament?

On the plus side, there has been and will continue to be conversation about the topic all the way up to the National Federation of High School Associations (NHFS), and through all 50 state associations. It is, after all, a dreamy, almost cinematic vision.

"It's something that sounds fantastic," said Michael Reddick, boys basketball coach at South Atlanta High, whose team has played on national television several times over the past few seasons. "You could make a lot of money."

Here's more news: The NFHS, comprised of high school athletics sanctioning bodies from all 50 states and the District of Columbia, has already voted to instruct staff to come up with a plan for national championships.

Now, the bad news: That vote was in 1979, never acted upon, and the idea has never come up for another vote. Also, although the topic of national championships is part of the NFHS's three-year strategic plan running from 2008-11, meaning it is to be officially discussed in that time, no serious inroads have been made.

Bob Kanaby, executive director of the NFHS, said the issue is not on the official agenda for the national summer meetings.

"As part of that strategic plan, developed by membership, they suggested that national championships be undertaken within that three-year period," Kanaby said. "That's what we will be beginning to do as we set out into 2009-10. It would start with the board, and the board will take something to membership. It could well be discussed this fall among sectional meetings, but those would just be preliminary discussions."

It will take a sea change in sentiment from state associations that comprise the NFHS to alter the landscape. Beyond the many financial and logistical hurdles, some major philosophies would have to change.

"It is not compatible with the mission of high school athletics," said John Johnson, director of communications and publications for the Michigan High School Athletic Association. "What is the essence of high school sports? To educate. It's about the time of day, and order of importance in the process.

"If we get too hung up on what our athletic teams do athletically as opposed to what our athletic programs do for our kids and do for our schools, then we're no better than the AAUs and other third parties which promote these things."

Many state associations forbid member schools from participating in any event that "purports" to be a national championship, risking penalties ranging from probation to suspension to the death penalty. That would be expulsion and the loss of rights to compete for state titles.

High school athletics was always intended to be one of the most democratic endeavors. Now we're starting to move toward a real elitist attitude where you try to get the best team possible.

--Ralph Swearngin, Georgia State Association executive director

"It's been a part of [informal] national federation discussions for 10 to 15 years," said Georgia High School Association executive director Ralph Swearngin. "The vast majority of states are very much opposed to it, and our executive committee is on record as being opposed. The process of a national championship is going to take kids out of school more -- much more -- and impact other sports."

Swearngin points out some of the obvious.

Think for a moment of all the clamor for correction to college football's BCS and how little progress has been made there.

Next, plunk your dreams into a box with the BCS, all the political nonsense that is by nature attached to the process of changing any large, long-standing system that has complex machinery (like the fact that many states have playing/officiating rules for each sport that differ from other states).

Making all the pieces fit would take some serious work.

"All state associations finish state playoffs at wildly different times," said Johnson, Michigan's spokesman. "Some basketball tournaments end in February, some at the end of March. What if some team out East had to wait five or six weeks for Michigan's state tournament to end?

"Even if everybody agreed that this was in the best interest of school sports, you couldn't coordinate every state to put together what would be a true national tournament. Think of states that have divisions of play based on enrollment. Which [schools] go? It's not necessarily a no-brainer; it's not always going to be biggest school. There are so many moving parts."

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There are some national championships. In cheerleading, drill and dance, for example, there are televised competitions staged at Disney's Wide World of Sports in Orlando, Fla. But these are not sanctioned by the NFHS, nor by state members of the NFHS.

The national wrestling and weightlifting "championships" staged by the National High School Coaches Association (NHSCA) are invitational, and are not team competitions.

The NHSCA does not work in concert with the NFHS. There are also national high school rugby and surfing championships, to name a couple, that are not affiliated with the NFHS or its member associations.

Swearngin said Georgia permits student-athletes to compete in events like these and others as long as their high school coach does not coach, the athlete does not wear school uniforms or represent the school, and the school does not provide any funding or transportation.

Some states forbid participation in these activities altogether, and it is not uncommon for student-athletes from those states to participate anyway, as long as they are seniors and do not risk future eligibility. Last month, the first ESPN RISE National High School Invitational, a boys basketball tournament pitting national powers against one another, was held in North Bethesda, Md. It was won by Findlay Prep, a Las Vegas-based collective of hoops studs from around the nation and beyond who attend class at Henderson International School in Vegas.

By its own billing it was an invitational tournament and not a national championship. The field was hand-picked, and some of the teams assembled rosters absent the governance typically associated with state associations.

ESPN RISE senior vice president James Brown said he "invited the [National] Federation [of High School Associations] to participate in our Invitational and welcome their involvement in the future."

Brown added that the ESPN RISE tournament was created to provide "high school athletes with opportunities to elevate and improve their talent."

If we get too hung up on what our athletic teams do athletically as opposed to what our athletic programs do for our kids and do for our schools, then we're no better than the AAUs and other third parties which promote these things.

--John Johnson, director of communications and publications, Michigan High School Athletic Association.

Swearngin, Georgia's executive director, was not swayed.

"What it's going go do is exacerbate a problem we already have; basketball high schools will be AAU all-star teams," he said. "I watched a little of the supposed national championship. There was a kid that had been in school two weeks; another a couple [of] months. It would create additional pressures.

"We have enough problems with Wheeler and Norcross [metro Atlanta schools that have dominated the big-school division in Georgia in recent years with several players who grew up outside their districts]. We have coaches and parents calling all the time, saying, 'Do something, do something.' "We can't, because if kids' parents move into the school district, they're eligible.

"High school athletics was always intended to be one of the most democratic endeavors. Everybody could participate, and we reward those who do the best. Now we're starting to move toward a real elitist attitude where you try to get the best team possible."

If, as South Atlanta coach Michael Reddick suggested, a national tournament could make money, that would be a good thing. It would have to, because it would take big money to run the thing. Unless funding was generous, how might some talented inner-city programs afford a trip across the country? Would that be a delimiter? No matter how good your team, you can't come unless you've got the cash? Bear in mind that many school systems are scrapping programs and cutting budgets these days just to function on a local level.

Unless somebody, like promoters and/or other funding parties step forward, national championships might not be financially feasible. Even if a bunch of cash showed up, the idea of national championships still clashes with the vision many state-level officials have for high school sports, and the potential logistics are enough to cause major headaches. How would even participants be determined?

Ignoring the fact that many states stage their state basketball tournaments at very different times, with different rules, Reddick proposed that states with multiple class systems based on school enrollment (Georgia has five, for example) could hold a mini-tournament between all the state basketball champs to determine a representative for regional play. Those teams would feed into a national tournament. A national championship in football simply could not include participants from all 50 state associations and the District of Columbia. With a week between games, it would take too long to play down, and the impact on winter sports would be significant. Some states already play football to mid-December.

But for the sake of conversation, how would, say four or eight participants be determined? By some sort of BCS-like system?

"There has been no firm way [suggested] to determine who would qualify," Swearngin said. "Unless you had state and regionals that led to nationals, it's going to be a sham. If somebody randomly decided it's going to be these eight schools, if it were a media concoction, it's not going to work."

As Michigan's Johnson said, "There's no way anybody can see everybody play."

Findlay Prep
Chris Rossi for ESPN RiseFindlay Prep celebrates its win over Oak Hill in the finals of the National High School Invitational.

Despite potential problems, Bruce Howard, spokesman for the NFHSA, sees an attraction.

"Would the parents and the players in such a game think there was an upside? Perhaps," he said. "They might see a chance for exposure, for scholarships. But while there is an increase in televising of high school games, I'm not sure there's more of an interest from a casual high school fan than there ever was.

"The reason [national championships] keep being brought up are the entrepreneurs. There is a segment of those [among NFHS membership] who feel that since it is going on, we should try to be involved in it so it's done properly."

Montrose Christian (Rockville, Md.) coach Stu Vetter, whose team participated in the ESPN RISE tournament, said that ultimately the state associations and the NFHS will be forced to concede a national basketball championship.

"I think with this [ESPN RISE] tournament you are going to see every high school team in America wanting to be a part of this," said Vetter, who first debuted on ESPN with a high school hoops team back in 1987.

"If that happens, eventually a lot of the state associations, if not all, will yield to the pressure. It's not going to happen very quickly, but I see it happening."

Would a promoter with deep pockets help speed up the process?

"My only response would be I'm not in a position to give an answer," Kanaby said. "I'd say I'd be happy to discuss it with our board."

The subject has gone that far before, 30 years ago to be exact.

Despite concerns, the NFHS has already dipped its toes into the national tournament business.

In December, with T-Mobile as a sponsor, it will stage its third annual national invitational basketball tournament, featuring four boys' and four girls' teams. The first one was in Seattle in 2007, the second in Albuquerque, N.M., in '08. This year's location has not been announced. Forty-three states have approved it.

So the topic appears ripe to rise again, likely later this year. Kanaby has been poring through documentation of what happened in '79, when he was a principal in New Jersey, in search of background.

"Part of what we'll do is put together some of the points and discussions [from '79]," he said. "We'll share all that with the membership if it goes to that level. We'll try as best we can to re-construct the thinking that went into that discussion.

"It comes down to whether an overwhelming majority of the membership believes that the educational mission of high school sports can be further enhanced or developed through this platform. It would have to be much more than a one- or two-member majority."

Matt Winkeljohn recently left the Atlanta Journal-Constitution after spending 21 years there. He can be reached at mattwinkeljohn@yahoo.com.

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