Last summer, in an interview with the Indianapolis Star, Indiana High School Athletic Association (IHSAA) Commissioner Bobby Cox addressed a number of topics related to high school athletics. In one response
about concerns that coaches are driven out of the profession, Cox offered the following thoughts:
“There’s a sense of entitlement. This comes from youth sports. You pay your $600 to put junior in soccer league and you’re expecting a return. You do that all the way to scholastic events and all of a sudden, the coach is going to tell you what happens. Parents don’t like that. That becomes an issue. It’s driving coaches away. It’s driving athletic directors away.
“There’s a more global concern to the level of superintendents. Schools are spending a lot of money on capital improvements of facilities. For what? A headache every Monday morning? There are some superintendents who say we ought to let clubs take it over; we don’t need this aggravation. But those superintendents don’t understand the lessons kids are learning from participation in school-based athletics. We have to do a better job of telling that story.”
In a follow-up interview, some of these concerns – and possible solutions – were discussed with Cox, who has been with the IHSAA since 2000, including the past five years as the IHSAA commissioner.
Question: In your opinion, what is the biggest challenge facingeducation-based high school athletics today?
Cox: This biggest challenge today is communicating to all stakeholders the true purpose of education-based athletics. Why do high school sports exist? We have to tell why it is important to maintain a healthy and focused curriculum of interscholastic athletics in our schools.
Question: High school seasons were once held sacred. Most club/travel teams worked around them, but some (soccer for example) now have teams that compete for students during the same season. Does that concern you and do you ever foresee clubs positioning themselves in other sports as direct competition to high schools?
Cox: The growth of non-school sponsored sport activities can be directly tied to the opportunity of financial gain for those sponsoring groups and the sometimes foolish pursuit of an athletic scholarship to college. The non-school sports world continues to grow as parents and students seek venues to display talents that might be considered worthy of collegiate participation. As demand increases, opportunities to conduct these activities begin to encroach upon scholastic sport seasons. Parents and students are continually exposed to the notion that participation in these non-school sponsored sports is the only avenue to a collegiate scholarship. As a result, many participants are willing to sacrifice the interscholastic experience to pursue this dream. Those working in the education-based athletic world know differently, yet it creates a challenging dilemma.
Question: Illinois recently had a defending state golf champion forgo her senior high school season in part so that she could play in more amateur events during the high school season this fall. If a student-athlete in a similar situation asked you for advice on which way to proceed (playing in high school vs. getting a jumpstart on a potential pro career), what would you tell them?
Cox: There was a day when I would have objected sternly to this and attempted to persuade the student and parent to reconsider. Today, I look upon these situations through a different lens. I do think for the truly elite student-athlete, there are selected opportunities for advanced competitions that may exceed the competitive levels of our high school contests. My advice to these students and parents is to closely examine the positives and negatives of rushing the sporting experience for the student. Once your high school eligibility expires, you can never go back and relive it. If you are willing to sacrifice the opportunity to represent your school, and you think this is the best sporting solution, I wish you the best of luck. Additionally, when these situations occur, it now opens another varsity spot on the high school team whereby another student-athlete now enjoys the benefits of that participation.
Question:What does education-based sports in high schools offer participants that club or travel teams cannot provide?
Cox: The most valuable asset that high schools maintain with respect to participation in their interscholastic athletic programs is the opportunity afforded students to represent their school and community. In many cases, the name on the front of the jersey is synonymous with the community, thus students are playing for both the school and community. Students display their talents before their peers and receive the acknowledgement and admiration from their schoolmates, which is not apparent in the non-school sponsored environment. Participation in education-based athletics complements the academic experience of a student and in many cases provides additional motivation in the classroom.
Question: You previously said “we need to do a better job of telling that story (of lessons learned through high school participation).” What is the best way to do that and who is the most important part of that audience (parents, coaches, current high school students, the next generation of students, all of the above)?
Cox: Similar to the good work being done at state high school associations around the country, our organization is using a variety of traditional and social media approaches to tell the story of high school sports and the value of participation. We have enlisted parents who have appeared in our commercials to tell their story about the values the high school experience has brought to their child. We have worked hard in attempting to differentiate our member school programs through a continued focus on sportsmanship, citizenship and servant leadership. I think it is important to spread these messages across every medium available so as to capture each stakeholder group.
Question: Clearly you believe in education-based participation because of firsthand experience. Is there a certain coach, student-athlete, team, event, that epitomizes why you do what you do?
Cox: As a high school student, I was fortunate to run track and cross country for literally a Hall of Fame coach. Chuck Koeppen is in the NFHS National High School Hall of Fame and I was a member of his first cross country team at my high school. Coach Koeppen taught me the lessons of perseverance, hard work, dedication, loyalty, team and community. Throughout his career, Coach Koeppen has been tremendously successful by adhering to and teaching those lessons to thousands of distance runners over five decades.
In his last season as a high school coach, his teams won both the boys and girls state cross country championships in Indiana while I was an assistant commissioner and I was there to witness the event. Fast forward to the summer of 2013 in Denver at the NFHS Summer Meeting, Coach Koeppen was inducted into the National High School Hall of Fame and I was privileged to hang the medallion around his neck.
After the conference, my wife and I spent a few days in the Colorado mountains. Coach Koeppen and his family joined us for a couple of days and I distinctly remember leaving Colorado feeling a tremendous sense of pride in his accomplishments and that I was a small part of that journey. While certainly not necessary in my mind, that week encapsulated and punctuated a 40-plus-year relationship with my high school coach. I only wish that every student-athlete enjoys a similar experience with their coach.
Matt Troha is assistant executive director of the Illinois High School Association and a member of the High School Today Publications Committee.