Nonprofit, independent journalism. Supported by readers.


Tilting the field: The distortion of high-school sports

Congratulations to the latest boys and girls state high-school sports champions.

Congratulations to the latest boys and girls state high-school sports champions. Also, a big congratulations to the Minnesota State High School League (MSHSL) for finally achieving what seems to be its main goal: having a vast majority of the state high-school sports championships go to a handful of suburban and private schools.
The distortion of high-school sports is nothing new. Take a look at the numerous classes for each sport. A nine-man football team shouldn’t have to take on Eden Prairie, but having four or five different classes for certain sports seems like an “everyone gets a trophy” mentality. There are allegations that open enrollment has been used in the suburbs to build what could be described as Division 3 college-level programs and private schools can offer the best athletes scholarships, making even the smaller private schools able to compete at the highest levels. The end result: a  handful of sports juggernauts and less participation in athletics overall.

It’s easy to see what’s pushed this: money. With the amount parents spend to train kids from a young age (from personal trainers to numerous camps) and with the amount of money in certain high-school athletic departments (some have the equivalent of a Division I-A college training facility), there is a demand by the athletic boosters to get results. I am not accusing anyone at the MSHSL of fixing the outcome of any games, but they have created a system that at best gives certain schools an advantage, and at worst is outright biased. With the amount of inflated interest being thrown behind some of these programs, there is always going to be a level of competitive advantage, but by making three adjustments, the playing field can be a little more level.

Rewrite open-enrollment rules
First, end open enrollment for athletics. Open enrollment has its benefits in regard to academics, but it’s likely been used as a tool to recruit players to go to the best athletic programs. By simply rewriting the open enrollment rules to state, “Any student who uses open enrollment to transfer to another school is unable to play any varsity level sport at their new school,” you would stop this suspected stockpiling of the best players. And for those who feel that the kids’ best option in life is to play a sport, there is nothing stopping any family from moving into a school district. By changing open enrollment, we would remind people with confused priorities that education is the reason schools exist.

Second, all private schools should be forced to play in the highest class in every sport. Private-school parents and staff will argue they only have a few hundred students so it’s not fair to make them compete with 4,000 student mega-schools, but how fair is it for a small rural school to get blown out in a tourney game by an all-star team? The full trophy cases give private schools far more bang for the buck, and allow them a selling point to get parents to sign up. As long as they can bring in the best players, they should be forced to play with the bigger teams.

Realign class sections
Finally, realign each class’s sections to prevent getting eight city teams in the tourney. Take a look at Boys Class AA Hockey. Seven of the eight sectionals have Twin Cities schools in them, and even the eighth has Big Lake, Buffalo and Monticello. If the MSHSL were to make two sectionals truly outstate, with no schools from within f50 miles of the city, you would encourage student athletics in the rural schools and bring more importance to the sectional tournaments in the city.

We need to remind ourselves our kids are supposed to be student athletes.  When the organization responsible for the management of a school’s extracurricular activity starts making rules to elevate a handful of students, at a handful of schools, you blur the lines of what really is important and allow kids to question the real purpose of their school.

Matthew McNeil is the host of a radio show on KSTP AM 1500.