Our big problem is that we are distracted by small matters. For example . . .

I don’t think there is any close, thoughtful observer who can honestly say high school basketball is in better shape today than any number of years ago that one might pick . . . 10, 20, 30 or more years.

Changes in students, schools, sports and society have not been kind to school-based basketball. Charter schools, school of choice, non-school sports, migration into other sports and activities, specialization in a single sport, and burnout leading to dropouts from organized sports are a few of many factors contributing to declining participation. And there is more competition for attention away from schools and away from school sports every single day. So the fault is not one thing only.

Girls basketball has been particularly hard hit by specialization in volleyball that was supercharged after the switch of basketball and volleyball seasons a decade ago. Girls basketball participation declined in every school year since the change of seasons before a 2.2 percent increase for 2017-18.

The days when most schools sponsor three basketball teams each for boys and girls – 9th grade, JV and varsity – are long gone; and that’s not just because we were forced to cram both genders’ basketball seasons into the winter. Many of those same schools now struggle to support one subvarsity team, and many have very short benches – only two or three subs – at the varsity level.

Every week the gap between the haves and have-nots grows wider and more obvious to all, with final scores so lopsided that the games could not have been a good experience for anyone – players or spectators, home team or visitor.

One would think that these matters would be on the minds of those who love and lead high school basketball and that they would be working diligently on initiatives to address the declining interest and growing imbalance in what was once the centerpiece sport of interscholastic athletics.

They would be asking, “What can we do at the junior high/middle school level to engage students . . . to start them or keep them on the path to high school basketball programs? How can we encourage and equip high school coaches to attract to and hold in their programs more high school students? How can we help coaches increase all players’ game time? How can we help coaches teach players to value and grow from the experience of being a backup player?”

Surprisingly, the only proposals related to basketball that are advancing toward Representative Council action at this time are (1) seed MHSAA District tournaments, and (2) expand the coaching box.

Sadly, these proposals do nothing to reverse the decline of high school basketball. They are distractions from the hard work of reclaiming a healthy culture for the most historically important sport to schools in Michigan.

The culture shift needed is away from an all-star event for a few graduating seniors and toward ongoing educational programs for all coaches, every year. Away from national events and toward city, county and conference rivalries. Away from “elite” travel teams to K-6 development programs out of season. Away from creeping commercialism and professionalism and toward a recommitment to amateurism. Away from gamesmanship and toward sportsmanship. Away from running up the score – a lot – to allowing every team member to play – a lot. 

The clock is ticking on the life of student-centered school-sponsored basketball. And a lot bigger proposals are needed than what we’ve been generating of late.

Posted in: Basketball


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About the Author

Jack Roberts

Jack Roberts has been at the helm of the MHSAA as its Executive Director since 1986, implementing programs and overseeing tournament administration and regulations for the Association which boasts 1,500 member schools, 10,000 registered officials and 13,000 head coaches.

During the last 45 years, Roberts has spoken to educator and athletic groups, business leaders and civic groups in almost every state and five Canadian provinces. He is one of the nation's most articulate advocates for educational athletics.

Roberts has served on the board of directors of the National Association of Sports Officials (NASO), is in his second term on the board of the National Federation of State High School Associations, and is the first chairman of the NFHS Network board of directors. He has been board president for the Refugee Development Center for nine years, and is a past-chair of the board of directors of the Michigan Society of Association Executives. He is chair of the board of trustees for the Capital Region Community Foundation for 2018.

He is a 1970 graduate of Dartmouth College, where he played defensive safety for the Ivy League's winningest football team during that span, and he sang in Dartmouth's close harmony vocal group.

His wife, Peggy, has retired from a 30-year career in social services, and is serving as president of the board of the Fenner Nature Conservancy in Lansing.