Leaders of school-based athletics know that these programs are an important component in developing the whole child, and many people in communities across the country point to high school athletics programs with pride. However, sometimes these programs become the focus of unrealistic parental hopes and dreams of athletic scholarships or professional athletics for their sons and daughters.
These dreams have created the club sport mentality and a contentious and divisive environment for school-based athletics. This is especially true in a state like Delaware where everyone seems to know everyone and has an interest in high school athletics. So, it is not surprising when elected officials seek to play a role in athletics.
A number of years ago, the state legislature became involved in the state association responsible for high school athletics in Delaware. While it was felt that there was a public need for an athletic association, the Delaware Association of Secondary School Athletics (DASSA) was deemed unresponsive to the public interests and was given the “death penalty.”
The organization was re-formed as the Delaware Interscholastic Athletic Association (DIAA). The DIAA conducted business just as the previous association; however, the Board of Directors was enlarged to 19 members, and for the first time included members of the public. In addition, all Board of Directors members were appointed by the governor and approved by the Delaware State Senate, and the executive director became a state employee under the Delaware Department of Education.
Unfortunately, many parents do not understand the role that a state high school association – or, for that matter, the NFHS – plays in their children participating in high school sports or activities.
Instead of being viewed as the organizations that care about the health and safety of children or the organizations responsible for creating a level playing field for the whole student-athlete, state associations are often viewed as a barrier to participation as they say “no” and hand out discipline for rule violations.
Parents often lament that they didn’t realize that their son or daughter needed the state association’s permission to play or perhaps didn’t even know the state association existed.
In the insular world of school-based athletics, where the idea is that the athlete is a student first, leaders in education-based athletics operate on the belief that everyone knows and abides by the rules. However, rules are violated or often misunderstood, and it is a failure of those of us leading the way to communicate, to educate and to explain our purpose, and this leads to misunderstanding and vulnerability.
Instead of being the proverbial “good guys” who ensure that there is a level playing field for everyone, state association leaders are often viewed as obstructionists. By trying to maintain the essence of school-based athletics through our rules and regulations, we have opened the door to the for-profit clubs and camps that promote themselves as the “ticket” to a college scholarship. In essence, a fear and lack of understanding of the rules and regulations have led parents to view these as unfair restrictions on their children.
At this point, politics often enter the arena. A simple call to a legislator, a tear-filled meeting or a claim that a rule is hurting students from receiving a college scholarship, brings forth immediate attention. The same is true when the executive director or Board of Directors doesn’t sanction a tournament that promises to bring in revenue, or fails to grant the waiver of a constituent’s child.
Without education and information, the organization is vilified for doing what is right. Lost is the positive work that is done to help student-athletes. Yet, how can we fault an elected official for interfering; constituent service is at the core of local politics, and nothing is more local than school-based activities. This is especially true when the official is told that something may benefit his or her constituents, save money and/or create jobs, but it is not taking place because of a rule.
State high school associations and their Board of Directors members must look in the mirror when problems with the state legislature occur. These leaders have to be proactive rather than reactive. As leaders in high school athletics, we know what we do and we understand the value of these programs in helping all student- athletes. But others simply do not.
We must look for opportunities to explain the value of school-based athletics. We must define the value of the multi-sport student- athlete. We must explain ourselves in a way we have never done before, and we must not let others tell our story. For the most part, an explanation will work; however, we must listen and be receptive to the concerns of our community – especially parents and athletes. We must all look for opportunities to present and explain what we do to legislative committees, the State Board of Education and to various community groups.
Communication, transparency and a better understanding of what your state high school association does may help avoid a “pat on the back” from state legislators as they show you the door.
Dr. Kevin Fitzgerald is the superintendent of the Caesar Rodney School District in Delaware and a former member of the NFHS Board of Directors. Fitzgerald is the 2018 NASS National Superintendent of the Year.