17

A Backhanded Compliment

A year ago this month I listened to the attorney for another statewide high school athletic association pose this question:  “Why is it that people quite readily accept inflexible age limitations over a broad spectrum of American life, including sports, but presuppose it is wrong for school sports?”

This attorney was in the middle of a controversy that more recently has visited the MHSAA:  an overage student seeking relief from a universally applied maximum age rule.  The speaker was perplexed and frustrated by the double standard.

Part of the reason for the double standard rests in the reality that people value the school sports experience so much more than other parts of life, including other sports experiences.  Because they want the opportunity to play, they resort to litigation in an attempt to create the right to play.

Another part of the reason school sports is challenged on an issue on which other programs get a free pass is that school sports has a centralized authority, close to home.  State high school associations are readily accessible targets, easier both to find and to fight with than most other entities with age restrictions.

And, of course, part of the reason for the double standard is the proximity of interscholastic athletics to academics – the former extracurricular, the latter curricular – the former a privilege for most teenagers, the latter a right of all citizens to age 26.

The reasons school sports are attacked on this issue while other entities are not are reasons really complimentary to school sports:  the program is popular, accessible and connected to education.  None of these features of school sports, or its age limitation, should change.

Comments

Erica Church
Tuesday, April 17, 2012 5:14 PM
I was just thinking that the age restriction for sports should be changed. I was 19 my senior year in high school and felt that it was wrong that I wasn't allowed to play sports bc of my age. There were others in my class in the same situation. None of us were held back we just ended up starting school later due to when our birthdays were. I'm just saying that if the person has good grades and has never been in any kind of trouble they should be allowed to play sports their senior year if they are 19.

Steve Peterson
Thursday, April 19, 2012 7:27 AM
Of course the age limit rule should be maintained. I'm guessing most folks would agree dogs shouldn't be allowed into restaurants. However, our society ACCOMMODATES blind people and allows them to enter restaurants assisted by seeing eye dogs. The age limit rule, like ALL THE OTHER RULES established by the schools and administered by the MHSAA should ACCOMMODATE students with intellectual and physical disabilities. It seems to me Mr. Roberts should spend less time blogging about how the status quo is just fine and spend more time facilitating change to make high school sports more inclusive to students that deserve to be included....especially the handicapped. Twenty three states(soon to be 24)currently have language in their rules for high school sports allowing waivers, with strict qualifications, for handicapped students. Wouldn't it be wonderful if Mr. Roberts' next blog boasted that Michigan was one of 25 forward thinking states who managed to find a way to include more deserving kids in high school sports?

Amy M. Goodman
Sunday, April 29, 2012 12:32 PM
Mr. Roberts aligns the athletics programs his association governs with “a broad spectrum of American life, including sports.” While the “broad spectrum of American life” is vague, because “sports” are highlighted, I take it to mean Mr. Roberts is wondering why people view the MHSAA as different from, for example, travel youth soccer leagues, or AAU youth basketball, or the USA Hockey program housed in my town, Ann Arbor.

The majority of member athletic programs that the MHSAA serves are sponsored by publicly funded school districts. As such, they are subject to policies that privately funded or professional sports organizations are not, for example, Title IX. Even if this voluntary interscholastic athletic association had only one public school district as a member, there would be a different standard for discrimination or allowing/denying access than would be policies governing privately-funded organizations such as Vardar Soccer Club or the Wolverine Swim Club. In some instances, private leagues must adhere to the public school policies when using facilities that are supported with public funds.

By association, activities sponsored by public schools are expected to offer access; ideally public education is all about equal access. Even though it is a constant struggle to realize equal access, it is the good fight. The definition of “equal” is not static; it must be revisited on a regular basis as the educational environment in schools or our culture evolves. The enactment of Title IX was fought by many schools and colleges, but gratefully “equal” means something different for young women today than it did in the 1950s, for our culture was changing.

The growing practice of educational inclusion in public schools comes on the heels of mainstreaming for boys and girls with physical and intellectual challenges. This evolution in education is an opportunity to review existing policies of all organizations serving public schools in a new light. It would be expedient to amend the MHSAA constitution now, and clearly lay out a path for how the practice of educational inclusion plays out in the sports arena.

The rule was meant to ensure that older, more experienced and physically mature men were not unfairly placed on the field with younger boys; it was to ensure “equality” for boys who were age-grade aligned. In that context it’s a good rule.

Good rules are only relevant if they fit into the context of the times. This rule must be reviewed in the context of the new demographics that public school districts serve. Better to define exceptions than to face separate but equal sports programs. The hard work that it would take to craft an exception policy for boys and girls with physical or intellectual disabilities would be proactive and timely; moreover, I think it is the MHSAA’s job as the centralized governing body.

Mr. Roberts further states that the reason the MHSAA is taking heat on its rigid adherence to an outdated rule is because it is a centralized authority. Of course it is. That is also your job.

And so I agree with Mr. Roberts on his two main points. Is the MHSAA subject to different standard when compared to privately funded sports? You betcha. Is the MHSAA a convenient “target” because it is a centralized authority? You betcha. A centralized authority is expected to help members keep pace with the changing forces bearing on their programs, not maintain an outdated status quo, or in this case, cling to a belief that a high school athletic association represents privilege instead of rights.

No compliment intended, backhanded or otherwise.


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