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In High School Sports, Transfers Are Creating Just Two Classes of Teams

For a few years, the CBS CBS-owned national high school sports web site MaxPreps.com divided its top 25 basketball polls into two classes: traditional high schools and “academies,” which basically were basketball factories that may or may not have had schools attached. The decision reflected the idea that public or private schools getting neighborhood kids and competing under a state athletic association umbrella weren’t competing on the same plane as a program generally not affiliated with a state association that attracted players from all over the world.

However, at the beginning of the 2013-14 season, MaxPreps went back to just one poll. Why?

While there is merit to recognizing the advantages and limitations of programs across the country, the proliferation of crossover games between teams in our Xcellent 25 and now-defunct Academy Top 10 would suggest coaches are eager to measure themselves against the best regardless of those factors.

And why would coaches be eager to measure themselves against “the best”? Because in many high school sports — not just basketball — transfers and grouping of elite squads at the secondary level is so rampant, so open, that some of these traditional schools have the same relationships with their sports as colleges with big-time sports have with theirs — they are part of the school, but not really of the school.

In all the arguments about how to group classes in school sports to counteract the apparent advantages of certain schools (and protect the coffers of state associations), there are really only two — the schools that solicit and/or attract athletic transfers, and those that don’t. For students, the advantage of the latter is that you get a chance to make the team. The disadvantage of the latter is that you’re going to get creamed by the former, which is accelerating the transition of high school sports from the fantasy of every-team-is-equal-if-they-just-work-hard-enough to the equivalent of Division I colleges against intramural squads.

The Star Tribune in Minneapolis is just one media outlet noting this transition, with examples that include a high school star wrestler that moved in from Missouri for greater glory at a suburban high school two states away. State high school associations have rules that are meant to limit or prevent athletically related transfers, but they’re almost impossible to enforce. An Illinois high school sued by a player who lost out to teammates who came with their coach from his previous stop didn’t have to forfeit its season because of violating transfer rules — it was because of rules violations regarding off-season workouts and the coach being in charge of an unaffiliated summer team.

Plus, the transfer rules are complicated because of charter schools and school-choice laws that encourage families to put students in other schools if they feel like their current school is not meeting its needs. The rules still apply, but just try to enforce them. From the Star Tribune:

“I’ve dug up — requested — [bills] to prove that they’re at an address,” said Jason Obarski, the athletic director at Prairie Seeds Academy, the Brooklyn Park charter school that in 2012 was disqualified from the state soccer tournament over player eligibility questions.

Obarski, who became AD in 2013, said some athletic directors use the “check and make sure the tooth brush is wet” test to make sure an athlete is living where they say they are.

“I’ve gone pretty close [to] that,” he said.

One lawyer who has studied the issues said that because of the complexities “the activities director might as well go out and get a law degree.”

So how do you get high school sports back to its presumed original intent? You can’t. Perhaps MaxPreps is bringing schools back together, but the executive director of the California Interscholastic Federation, which oversees high school sports, in that state, suggested to the Pasadena Star-News that maybe it is time to divide programs in two.

Executive director Roger Blake said that slightly fewer student-athletes transferred than in the 2012-13 school year. But it’s possible, he said, that eventual transfer numbers could lead to changes down the road.

“There may be, realistically down the road, and I do not know if I’m with the CIF at that time, that I think there will be a discussions of a transfer division,” he said. “If a certain percentage of your kids are transfers then you play in that division. I think people will look at it in the future.”

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