NFHS Strategic Plan Includes Nationals

By Staff

Athletic Management, 15.2, February/March 2003,

When the Universal Cheerleading Association’s national high school competition took place in early February, its banners were sporting a new and controversial logo: that of the National Federation of State High School Associations. In what NFHS Executive Director Bob Kanaby calls the organization’s “first foray” into endorsing national events, its Board of Directors voted unanimously in June 2002 to accept an undisclosed sum from the UCA in exchange for the use of the NFHS logo at the national competition.

Kanaby is careful to point out that the partnership with the UCA does not represent a move toward NFHS-sponsored national events in team sports—a concept that heads of several state high school associations vocally oppose. “Cheerleading is not considered a sport under Title IX or by the Office for Civil Rights,” Kanaby says. “More than half of the NFHS member associations don’t consider cheerleading a sport. It’s an activity.”

The UCA’s national competition was selected for endorsement “because of the opportunity to develop a national spirit coaches education program to serve the needs of this growing activity,” Kanaby continues. Cheerleading injuries are on the rise, and “the agreement to endorse this national event will enable the Federation to address this situation in the interests of young people,” he says.

In January 2002, the NFHS National Presence Subcommittee advised the organization to look into increased involvement in national high school events to expand its visibility. The NFHS Board of Directors unanimously approved the recommendation in April 2002 and incorporated it into the organization’s 2002-05 Strategic Plan.

The subcommittee called the recommendation to explore national events the “biggest change away from previous strategic plans.” The NFHS has historically steered clear of putting its weight behind national competitions for high schoolers.

“The NFHS is a values-based organization with a lot to offer. Anything the Federation is involved with will be done with the right values and will be well run and safe,” says Brigid DeVries, Commissioner of the Kentucky High School Athletic Association and Chairwoman of the National Presence Subcommittee. “But unless you’re involved in high school athletics, the Federation can be a well-kept secret. The subcommittee wants to change that, and we felt that increasing the options for involvement in national events was a good start.

“When you have more national presence, you can facilitate better marketing activities,” she continues. “It also helps to position the NFHS as the central source of support and authority for high school athletics.”

Illinois High School Association Executive Director Marty Hickman concurs. “A lot of national competitions already take place at the high school level,” says Hickman, who also served as Vice-Chair of the Strategic Planning Committee. “Most of the organizations involved in promoting existing events are not extremely concerned about enhancing students’ lives and educations through sports. By getting involved, the NFHS will bring that focus to national events.”

However, some athletic administrators are less than thrilled with the direction they see the organization taking. They express concern that this winter’s UCA nationals endorsement will lead to others.

“The Federation went far afield to endorse a UCA event that is called a ‘nationals,’” says Michigan High School Athletic Association Executive Director Jack Roberts. “Endorsing nationals for one group will lead to doing it for others, and team nationals won’t be far behind. It’s a slippery slope, and endorsement of a high school cheerleading nationals already has us on that slide.

“Having NFHS-sponsored national championships wouldn’t stop any of the other national events that are already taking place,” Roberts continues. “It would only create more of them, now with official endorsement.”

James Bloch, Athletic Director at New Trier High School in Winnetka, Ill., is also against the new initiative. “It seems that the NFHS is saying, ‘We can’t beat them, so let’s join them,’ rather than continuing to stand together against the idea, as we’ve done in the past,” he says. “Athletics for youngsters already has the tendency to spin out of control, but I always thought the NFHS was part of the group of gatekeepers who weren’t going to get sucked into the runaway train mentality. At least at first glance, it looks like they have.”

If the NFHS does eventually endorse team nationals, a variety of problems could arise, Roberts says, beginning with the fact that national events would throw the spotlight on the country’s top athletes at the expense of the majority. “National events would do nothing to help the junior high school programs, JV programs, or even varsity programs in 99.9 percent of the schools in my state,” he says. “They simply wouldn’t involve them.”

However, the subcommittee cautions that concern among NFHS members over the recommendation may be misdirected. “I don’t think anybody on the committee believes we’re headed toward basketball or football nationals,” says Hickman. “I think there are only a few activities that would lend themselves to national tournaments, but I don’t think we should shut the door on the entire idea.”

Among those few activities could be summertime national events in sports like golf, tennis, and track and field—proposals Hickman believes more state associations would back if they came to a vote. To start, however, the NFHS may need to do a better job of explaining the positives of the idea.

“I have yet to have it explained to me how having national events would further the NFHS’s educational mission,” says Bill Farney, Executive Director of the Texas Interscholastic League and Chairman of the NFHS Strategic Planning Committee.

“The NFHS is headed in the right direction with courses they provide like Citizenship Through Sports,” says Bloch. “If they want more national presence, let’s make that class mandatory for all coaches and let’s develop more classes along those lines. If we don’t feel like we’re making enough inroads with the programs we have, let’s talk about why. Help us use our profession as the platform, not NFHS-sponsored national competitions.”

David Stead, Executive Director of the Minnesota State High School League and an NFHS Board of Directors member, agrees. “I’m not sure that the Federation would be as successful using national events as a platform as they would providing us with more resources at the state level that we can pass along to our schools.”

Stead is willing to hear more, however. “I think this issue needs to be explored, and there is no simple answer without further discussion,” he says. “We need to gather as many facts as we can and talk about the advantages and disadvantages and get input from across the country.”

In 1979, member state associations resoundingly defeated an initiative to hold summer nationals in golf, tennis, and track and field, with 39 states weighing in against the idea. As the resurfaced issue makes its way through discussions at the NFHS, Hickman says athletic directors can expect to hear more from their state associations in the future.