Do Superintendents Have a Say on Statewide Sports Matters?

by Kate Beem

The rules governing interscholastic athletics are as complex as those at the collegiate level but with more bodies setting the standards.

Every state has an activities or athletics association, comprised of representatives from public and private schools, charged with setting eligibility requirements and rules for practice, regular-season play and tournaments. Some associations govern all activities outside academics, including music, cheerleading and drama. Most have boards of directors gleaned from member schools and other affiliated bodies, such as organizations representing superintendents or high school principals.

Thirteen state association executive directors are former superintendents, and 32 association boards have at least one superintendent as voting members, according to the National Federation of State High School Associations. But with superintendents and their school boards ultimately responsible for enforcing rules of eligibility and fair play, are the views of top school system leaders adequately voiced on these statewide governing boards to ensure that academic interests take priority over athletics?

It’s a legitimate question to raise when one large state now runs state championships in five sports for boys and girls in grades 7 and 8, and another state athletic association has removed limits on out-of-state travel by high school sports teams.

All-Principal Board
That question isn’t easy to answer. While every state association and its governing board serves the same purpose, they all function slightly differently, tailored to meet the needs arising in that state, says John Johnson, communications director for the Michigan High School Athletic Association.

“We all have common roles, but we all take different roads to get there,” Johnson says.
Michigan’s board of directors, for example, includes five superintendents, along with school board members, principals and athletic directors. Those wanting to serve on the board must declare their intent to run for one of the 14 elected positions from different regions.

In Illinois, a state with about 750 high schools, the board of directors of the state association, in contrast, is made up of high school principals, although some individuals from smaller districts also function as the superintendent. The feeling in Illinois is that principals are situated where the rubber hits the road in terms of how athletics affect students in their schools, says Marty Hickman, the executive director.

“I think that’s a great way to go about it,” he says. “I think the principal in the building is the one who has the broader perspective. The principal knows what goes on at his or her own building.”

In Pennsylvania, only two of the 30 board members of the interscholastic athletic association are superintendents, but those members still carry a lot of clout. The superintendent representatives raised pointed concerns a few years back about a rule change moving up the start of the football season to early August in the Pittsburgh area so schools there could finish their own playoffs before the start of the state tournament.

But association members from the rest of the state cried foul, asserting that the early start gave those schools an unfair advantage. After the issue blew up, the board of the Pennsylvania Interscholastic Athletic Association rescinded the schedule change.

The association always has viewed sports as an extension of the classroom and doesn’t want anything, even revenue-generating playoffs and state championships, to operate to the detriment of academics, says Melissa Mertz, the PIAA assistant director.

Now all varsity football practices statewide begin at the same time with the first games scheduled in September. And the board moved back its championship finals to December so high schools had time to fit in all their games.

Underrepresented Views
Any rule change in California must go through a lengthy process before it ever reaches the California Interscholastic Federation’s whose executive committee is heavily tilted toward superintendents, who fill four of the nine seats. While superintendents are “very much in the process,” according to the federation’s Communications Director Emily Zack, they aren’t supposed to cast their votes on bylaw changes or other matters based on their job titles. They’re on the federated council as representatives of their section of the state, and they have to vote the way their constituents tell them to, Zack says.

A few years back, the staff and board of the Washington Interscholastic Activities Association began discussions about how to make the governing body more inclusive. Those talks at first focused on increasing the participation of minorities and women, says executive director Mike Colbrese, but quickly moved on to another underrepresented group — superintendents.

It wasn’t just a matter of fairness, Colbrese says. Including superintendents just made sense because they bring a wealth of knowledge to their job from having served in a variety of positions in school districts. “They’re people who have to, because of their responsibilities, see a broader perspective,” Colbrese says.

An advisory committee made up of superintendents meets with the WIAA three or four times a year, which has opened communication. And Art Jarvis, superintendent in Washington’s Enumclaw School District, serves as one of 10 voting members of the WIAA board. Jarvis is the only superintendent with a vote.

Jarvis says his experience on the athletics board has been educational, and he takes seriously his role representing other superintendents. He believes he can be a conduit between the board and his colleagues in the Puget Sound region.

That’s what Colbrese hopes happens. Membership in the WIAA is determined by school board members. Superintendents have the greatest amount of interaction with board members of any of the constituent groups on the WIAA board, he says. They need to understand what goes on at the state association.