Guest Column

Maddening Mandates on the Playing Fields

by JOHN E. ROBERTS

The phrase “unfunded mandates” rarely is uttered by school administrators without a -colorful expletive.

And who can blame them? How tiresome it is, indeed, how absolutely back-breaking it must be, for an education leader to confront constant criticism of a school district’s lack of academic excellence or progress when simultaneously facing a mismatch between escalating needs and diminishing resources.

So I’ve been asking myself, as the head of statewide governing body for interscholastic athletics, what is within my authority and responsibility to control? What might I (and my colleagues across the country) do to avoid adding to schools’ financial problems, and how might we contribute to funding solutions in sports?

New Norms
Unfunded mandates relating to the competitive school sports program are of two general types: direct and indirect.

The direct unfunded mandates most frequently result from national rules changes, usually promulgated with the best of intentions — for instance, participant safety — that have the effect of requiring schools to spend more money or drop the sport. Some examples: new national playing rules that require helmets with face masks in softball; new performance standards for baseball and softball bats; new standards for the discus cage and the vaulting pole and landing pads in track and field; and a required vaulting table to replace the vaulting horse in girls gymnastics.

The indirect unfunded mandates are more subtle, usually resulting from a procedural change in the state tournament that establishes a “new normal” for regular-season competition. For instance, a procedural change might be assigning three rather than two officials for state tournament contests in basketball and lacrosse, or five rather than four officials for football playoff games, or five-member panels rather than three judges for competitive cheerleading tournaments.

It would be untenable to call for a total moratorium on national playing-rules changes affecting facilities and equipment if evidence suggests a risk exists. High school sports leadership has a moral obligation to promulgate rules changes that will minimize that risk.

But perhaps we could pair each of those burdens from direct mandates with a revenue enhancement opportunity that directly benefits local school sports. In Michigan, we are attempting to generate new revenue from e-commerce on MHSAA.com and from Internet video streaming on MHSAA.tv. These initiatives are designed to deliver quarterly checks to our member schools, which have watched their aid from the state drop by hundreds of dollars per student, with worse yet to come.

And certainly we can impose a moratorium on non-essential, window-dressing national rules changes, such as recent requirements regarding the color for home team jerseys in basketball and football and the proposed shot clock in basketball.

Reversing Trends
At the state level, we can and should also say no to many and varied requests for seeding of tournaments and any other reformatting of state playoffs that could extend travel beyond what would result from strict adherence to geography.

We also can stop and perhaps slowly reverse the decades-long march toward more and more sports being served with state association tournaments, which places pressure on schools to follow suit.

Perhaps we can also stop “classification creep,” the growth of competition groupings, which causes more and more schools to qualify and/or advance deeper into our tournaments. Even with generous expense-reimbursement policies, it’s rare that participating schools do not face expenses beyond those reimbursements.

Dropping sports from our tournament offerings and/or reducing tournament classifications or divisions can be unpopular as it goes against the grain of expanding opportunities for kids. The public — quick to applaud tournament expansions — will be even quicker and louder in criticizing reductions and contractions. But perhaps we could pair each tournament expansion and other indirect mandates with new efficiencies in our operations.

In Michigan, we operate free of membership dues and tournament entry fees. We don’t impose fines. We reduced our association’s operating overhead by nearly 10 percent in 2008-09 compared to the year before, and we continue to look for ways to reduce expenses for schools. By organizing online rules meetings for coaches and telephonic meetings for committee members, participants don’t have to travel or be away from their schools, so substitute teachers are no longer necessary.

Raising Stakes
In spite of nearly 100 years of tradition, we are trending away from a single site in Michigan for all games of district tournaments in basketball, as well as soccer and volleyball, not just allowing but encouraging a participating school to host every game, usually reducing overall travel expenses and increasing attendance and related revenues.

State high school athletic associations can and should also impose new, more restrictive limitations on travel for out-of-state competition. Always excessive from a philosophical standpoint, large interstate meets and tournaments are now objectionable from a practical, economic standpoint as well.

And school administrators everywhere ought to be concerned about current planning by the National Federation of State High School Associations to conduct national events that include national high school championships. This would raise the stakes of school sports to unacceptable levels philosophically, and it would unreasonably raise the cost of school sports — a totally unnecessary, unfunded mandate.

Jack Roberts is executive director of the Michigan High School Athletic Association in East Lansing, Mich. E-mail: jroberts@mhsaa.com