Nurturing Our Lower Level Programs

May 15, 2014

By John E. “Jack” Roberts
MHSAA Executive Director

When I’ve been faced with the most difficult choices as to different courses of action for the MHSAA, I’ve tried to face up to this reframing of the issue: “If we were creating the MHSAA for the first time today, would we do this, or would we do that?”

For example, would we or would we not limit coaches’ contact with athletes out of season? Would we have a 90-day period of ineligibility for transfer students or would it be 180 days?

There are other examples of such “either, or” questions I could provide, but none is as difficult or defining as this: Should school sports under the MHSAA’s auspices provide more opportunities for 7th- and 8th-graders and new opportunities for even younger students?

I won’t be coy about what I think our answer should be. I haven’t always felt this way, and I recognize it is a different opinion than some who are quoted in this publication; but today it’s my belief that if we were creating the MHSAA for the first time in 2014, the MHSAA would allow more contests and longer contests for 7th- and 8th-graders, and the MHSAA would have competition policies and programs for younger middle schoolers too.

I believe this is what parents want for their children and what students want for themselves; and I believe, within reason, that the better we serve these students in their junior high/middle school years, the stronger high school sports will be and the better these programs will support the educational missions of schools.

I believe we must begin to serve middle school students more comprehensively, and that our doing so today is the best hope we have for retaining comprehensive programs for high school students tomorrow. Not only does the lower profile and pressure of lower level programs nurture the highest ideals of educational athletics, they provide our highest hope for preserving those ideals at the high school level.

The Lasting Impact of First Impressions

The over-arching question before us is how to maintain policies that encourage multiple sport experiences for students at the junior high/middle school level while at the same time adjusting those policies in terms of grade level served and the numbers and lengths of contests allowed in order to be more attractive to junior high/middle school parents and to school districts which desire additional competition opportunities in the school setting for students prior to high school.

There is a good healthy discussion in our midst about the scope of junior high/middle school athletics – how much should occur and how young it should commence; and the result of these discussions may have long-lasting effect on students, schools and the MHSAA.

Here are two central issues:

1.  Contest Limits

Many people over many years have contributed to developing the current season limitations for the number of contests permitted by MHSAA member junior high/middle schools. These good people have believed in a philosophy of sports at this level that encourages students to try multiple sports.

“Kids haven’t fully matured yet,” they say. “Kids haven’t been exposed to some sports yet. They don’t know what they might like or be good at. So let’s have policies and programs that encourage new opportunities and experiences at this level.”

The season limits that have been put in place allow some junior high/middle schools, or their entire leagues, to fit four distinct seasons in a nine-month school year, consistent with this over-arching philosophy to encourage these students to try new things and learn.

There is another educationally grounded and equally astute group of administrators and coaches who are concerned that the current limits are too severe in comparison to non-school youth sports programs. For example, community/club basketball or soccer programs may schedule 15 or 18 or more games per season versus the MHSAA limit of 12 at the junior high/middle school level.

These folks think these restrictive limitations create a disincentive for kids to play school sports, and that many of those who have no place in junior high/middle school sports have no interest later in high school sports.

2.  6th-Graders

Historically, the popular opinion among educators has held that 7th and 8th grade is early enough for schools to provide competitive athletics, early enough to put youth into the competitive sports arena, and early enough to pit one school against another in sports.

Today, however, many educators and parents point out that such protective philosophies and policies were adopted about the same time “play days” were considered to be the maximum exertion females should experience in school sports. Some administrators and coaches argue that both our severe limits on contest limits at the junior high/middle school level, and our refusal to serve 6th-graders, are as out of date and inappropriate as play days for females.

Today, in nearly four of five school districts with MHSAA member schools, 6th-graders go to school in the same building with 7th- and 8th-graders. But MHSAA rules don’t allow 6th-graders to participate with and against 7th- and 8th-graders. In fact, the MHSAA Constitution doesn’t even acknowledge that 6th-graders exist.

Today, in many places, 6th-graders have aged-out of non-school, community sports, but they are not permitted to play on MHSAA junior high/middle school teams.

Last school year, 50 different school districts requested this rule be waived for them, and the MHSAA Executive Committee approved 46 of 50 waivers, allowing 6th-graders to compete on 7th- and 8th-grade teams. During 2011-12, 37 of 40 requests for waiver were approved, in all cases for small junior high/middle schools. Many of these schools want, and some of them desperately need, these 6th-graders to fill out junior high/middle school teams.

Young people are starting sports much younger today than 100 years ago when the MHSAA was created. Younger than even 50 years ago when the MHSAA was incorporated. If the MHSAA were created today to serve any students before 9th grade, I’m certain it would not leave out 6th-graders who are walking the same halls with 7th- and 8th-graders, and who have been playing competitive sports almost since the first day they started walking at all.

Eyes on the future

The most important thing we can do to enhance high school sports is to grow junior high/middle school sports programs. The earlier we disconnect young people from non-school sports and engage them in school-sponsored sports, the better our chances are of keeping high school athletic programs healthy, and the better our prospects are of keeping both participation rates and conduct standards high.

School sports are in competition for hearts and minds of young people. Our competition includes movies, jobs, cars, video games, boyfriends and girlfriends and club sports ... especially club sports. School sports needs to market itself better, and part of better is to be available earlier – much sooner in the lives of youth. More contests at the junior high/middle school level and more opportunities for 6th-graders should be parts of our marketing strategies on behalf of educational athletics generally.

For at least 50 years there have been predictions by people outside of our member schools that the system of school-sponsored sports that is almost unique to the United States would someday give way to the system of most countries where youth sports is provided by non-school community groups and private athletic clubs. Some people challenge school-sponsored sports on a program basis – for example, that competitive athletics creates a distraction to the core educational mission of schools. Others may challenge school-sponsored sports on a financial basis – that interscholastic athletics compete for the limited resources communities have to support their schools.

Today there also exists among our member schools a small percentage of administrators who have come to their leadership roles without involvement in school sports and who either desire and believe that interscholastic sports will be moved from schools to communities or who do not want but predict that such will occur as resources for schools continue to shrink.

I believe this is more likely to happen, or to happen sooner, if we do not change our approach to junior high/middle school sports. If we continue to restrict 7th- and 8th-graders to so few contests of such limited length compared to what those students have in non-school sports, and if we continue to offer nothing for younger students, we essentially and effectively force these students to non-school sports.

It is an often cited statistic that between 80 and 90 percent of all young people who ever begin playing competitive athletics stop playing before they reach the age of 13, meaning the vast majority of young people never, ever are involved in school programs. Thus, it is no mystery why people question the future of school sports. We’re doing nothing to make programs available to them. They have no experience in them.

Our restrictive and possibly outdated policies and procedures regarding contest limits and lengths and the age at which we begin to serve junior high/middle school students may assure that the dire predictions about school sports’ future will be accurate. We are doing too little, too late. It is marketing at its worst.

In my mind there is little doubt that we are doing too little too late with junior high/middle school students. Now the challenge before us is to think beyond “we can’t afford it” and make some necessary changes, while still avoiding a system that allows or even encourages schools doing too much too soon.

2023 Forsythe Award Celebrates Leinaar's 40 Years Dedicated to School Sports

By Geoff Kimmerly senior editor

March 8, 2023

Few people in Michigan have had a longer-lasting influence on the rules and policies of educational athletics than Frankfort’s Karen Leinaar, who has served in several roles locally, statewide and nationally over more than 40 years contributing to the school sports community.

Thank you, Bill Baker.

The longtime teacher, coach, principal and superintendent during a career that stretched across multiple schools – including Leinaar’s growing up, Delton Kellogg – made an impression on the standout multi-sport athlete before she graduated from high school in 1977. Baker’s philosophy and work led Leinaar to study education at Michigan State University and then brought her back as Delton’s athletic director to begin four decades of making the same impact on children in her hometown and eventually in hometowns all over Michigan and beyond.

Baker died in 2009, but not before continuing to mentor Leinaar through many good times and tough ones.

“The man had two daughters that I grew up with, his wife was a teacher, and he demonstrated to all of us – he never missed an event – that we were important to him. That even though we weren’t his kids, we were his kids and athletics was a way to help kids become better people – and for some kids it was the only thing that they had positive in their life,” Leinaar said. “And he made it known just to that individual kid how important their participation was and their involvement, and how that helped them become the person that they were.

“That to me was such an example of how to help people be good people, that I just took that role on.”

It’s a role in which she continues to serve. Leinaar began her career as an athletic administrator in 1982, and as the interim athletic director currently at Frankfort High School is serving her fifth district in that position. Since June 2019, she also has served as executive director of the Michigan Interscholastic Athletic Administrators Association (MIAAA), the professional organization for school sports administrators in the state with a membership of nearly 700.

Leinaar accepts the MHSAA's Women In Sports Leadership Award in 1998. To recognize that longtime and continuing impact, Leinaar has been named the 2023 honoree for the Michigan High School Athletic Association’s Charles E. Forsythe Award.

The annual award is in its 46th year and named after former MHSAA Executive Director Charles E. Forsythe, the Association's first full-time and longest-serving chief executive. Forsythe Award recipients are selected each year by the MHSAA Representative Council, based on an individual's outstanding contributions to the interscholastic athletics community.

Leinaar also served 22 years on the MHSAA’s Representative Council and a four-year term from 2009-13 on the Board of Directors for the National Federation of State High School Associations (NFHS), and just last week was named to the 2023 class of the National Interscholastic Athletic Administrators Association (NIAAA) Hall of Fame.

“It is impossible even to estimate the number of students, coaches, administrators and others who have been affected by the work Karen Leinaar has done to make school sports the best they can be – not only in her communities, but across Michigan and throughout the country,” MHSAA Executive Director Mark Uyl said. “There are few who have equaled her dedication and her support and promotion of the ideals of school-based sports. She has always placed an emphasis on being in the room, on the field or at the arena, actively participating in her leadership roles, and our programs are better for it.”

Leinaar first served as athletic director at Delton Kellogg for nearly 17 years, from March 1982 through October 1998. She spent three years at Gaylord, then 8½ at Benzie Central before taking over at Bear Lake in November 2010 and spending the next decade organizing athletic programs for students in grades 5-12 before retiring in January 2021. She came out of retirement to return to the athletic director’s chair this past fall as interim AD at Frankfort. She has completed nearly four years as MIAAA executive director, moving into that position after previously serving nine years as an assistant to the executive.

Leinaar began her service on the Representative Council in Fall 1999 and completed her last term as a statewide at-large representative at the Fall 2021 meeting.

She has been honored several times for her contributions. She received the MHSAA’s Women In Sports Leadership Award in 1998, a Citation from the NFHS in 2000, and she was named MIAAA Athletic Director of the Year in 2001. She received an MHSAA’s Allen W. Bush Award in 2014 – recognition given for work done generally behind the scenes and with little attention.

“This is the top of the mountain, per se. This one does mean so much,” Leinaar said of the Forsythe Award. “The names that are associated with this over the years, I never thought I’d be put in that group.”

Leinaar remains a continuous source of support at a multitude of MHSAA championship events, and during her time on Council was one of the most frequent representatives handing out trophies and medals to champions and runners-up at Finals events. She began while athletic director at Delton Kellogg hosting the MHSAA Volleyball Finals in Class B and Class C and continues to assist with those championships now played at Kellogg Arena in Battle Creek.

She also hosted Competitive Cheer Finals at Delton Kellogg in 1996 and 1997, Ski Finals while at Gaylord, and many more championship events across the Lower Peninsula. She continues to assist at the MHSAA’s Lower Peninsula Cross Country and Track & Field Finals.

After attending Delton Kellogg High School, Leinaar earned a bachelor’s degree in physical education, health and recreation, with a minor in driver education, from MSU in 1982. She completed a master’s in athletic administration from Western Michigan University in 1994.

Leinaar has been a member for 40 years of both the MIAAA and NIAAA, and has served as chairperson of the MIAAA Annual Conference and awards chairperson for both the state and national bodies. She’s also served as chairperson of the MIAAA’s Exemplary Athletic Program.

Past recipients of the Charles E. Forsythe Award 

1978 - Brick Fowler, Port Huron; Paul Smarks, Warren 
1979 - Earl Messner, Reed City; Howard Beatty, Saginaw 
1980 - Max Carey, Freesoil 
1981 - Steven Sluka, Grand Haven; Samuel Madden, Detroit
1982 - Ernest Buckholz, Mt. Clemens; T. Arthur Treloar, Petoskey
1983 - Leroy Dues, Detroit; Richard Maher, Sturgis 
1984 - William Hart, Marquette; Donald Stamats, Caro
1985 - John Cotton, Farmington; Robert James, Warren 
1986 - William Robinson, Detroit; Irving Soderland, Norway 
1987 - Jack Streidl, Plainwell; Wayne Hellenga, Decatur 
1988 - Jack Johnson, Dearborn; Alan Williams, North Adams
1989 - Walter Bazylewicz, Berkley; Dennis Kiley, Jackson 
1990 - Webster Morrison, Pickford; Herbert Quade, Benton Harbor 
1991 - Clifford Buckmaster, Petoskey; Donald Domke, Northville 
1992 - William Maskill, Kalamazoo; Thomas G. McShannock, Muskegon 
1993 - Roy A. Allen Jr., Detroit; John Duncan, Cedarville 
1994 - Kermit Ambrose, Royal Oak 
1995 - Bob Perry, Lowell 
1996 - Charles H. Jones, Royal Oak 
1997 - Michael A. Foster, Richland; Robert G. Grimes, Battle Creek 
1998 - Lofton C. Greene, River Rouge; Joseph J. Todey, Essexville 
1999 - Bernie Larson, Battle Creek 
2000 - Blake Hagman, Kalamazoo; Jerry Cvengros, Escanaba 
2001 - Norm Johnson, Bangor; George Lovich, Canton 
2002 - John Fundukian, Novi 
2003 - Ken Semelsberger, Port Huron
2004 - Marco Marcet, Frankenmuth
2005 - Jim Feldkamp, Troy
2006 - Dan McShannock, Midland; Dail Prucka, Monroe
2007 - Keith Eldred, Williamston; Tom Hickman, Spring Lake
2008 - Jamie Gent, Haslett; William Newkirk, Sanford Meridian
2009 - Paul Ellinger, Cheboygan
2010 - Rudy Godefroidt, Hemlock; Mike Boyd, Waterford
2011 - Eric C. Federico, Trenton
2012 - Bill Mick, Midland
2013 - Jim Gilmore, Tecumseh; Dave Hutton, Grandville
2014 - Dan Flynn, Escanaba

2015 - Hugh Matson, Saginaw
2016 - Gary Hice, Petoskey; Gina Mazzolini, Lansing
2017 - Chuck Nurek, Rochester Hills
2018 - Gary Ellis, Allegan
2019 - Jim Derocher, Negaunee; Fredrick J. Smith, Stevensville
2020 - Michael Garvey, Lawton
2021 - Leroy Hackley Jr., Byron Center; Patti Tibaldi, Traverse City
2022 - Bruce Horsch, Houghton

PHOTOS (Top) Karen Leinaar, left, awards the 2022 Division 4 volleyball finalist trophy to Indian River Inland Lakes coach Nicole Moore. (Middle) Leinaar accepts the MHSAA's Women In Sports Leadership Award in 1998.