A Tough Game

In an era of greater school choice, athletes are becoming more aggressive about transferring for athletic reasons. Some athletic administrators are now starting to fight back.

By Laura Smith

Laura Smith is an Assistant Editor at Athletic Management. She can be reached at ls@MomentumMedia.com.

Athletic Management, 17.6, October/November 2005, http://www.momentummedia.com/articles/am/am1706/toughgame.htm

A decade ago, Kentucky High School Athletic Association Assistant Commissioner Julian Tackett saw 10 or 15 cases a year. Last year alone, he dealt with 120 cases.

In just the San Diego section of the California Interscholastic Federation, Assistant Commissioner Bill McLaughlin saw close to 200 cases last year. And some were unlike any he’d seen before: staged marital separations, faked addresses, and ill grandparents who mysteriously recovered at the end of a playing season.

Athletically motivated transfers. They’re not a new problem, but what has changed are the numbers. From the east to west coast, and many stops in between, athletic administrators report a striking increase in students attempting to change schools for athletic reasons. And while there are many rules against athletically motivated transferring, determining who is an offender has become an increasingly difficult task.

“We’re getting more formal allegations of students transferring for athletic reasons, and for every formal allegation we get, we know there are many cases we never hear about,” says Tom Rashid, Associate Director of the Michigan High School Athletic Association.

“In an ideal world, we’d have a rule that anyone trying to manipulate the system has to sit out and the rest don’t have to,” says Tackett. “But it’s not an ideal world, and we’ve amended our rule 23 times in 23 years. We keep trying to stay a step ahead.”

The battle is worth fighting, says Rashid, because athletically motivated transfers weaken the integrity of high school athletics. The practice undermines competitive equity and displaces athletes who have waited patiently for their chance to play. Above all, it diminishes the core values of scholastic athletics: joint problem solving, sacrifice, and dedication to the success of the whole.

In this article, we’ll examine the reasons behind the increase in transfers and how athletic administrators can stem the tide. From changing rules to working with coaches, athletic administrators offer some new ideas to reverse this trend.

Most administrators agree there are three major reasons for the increase in athletically motivated transfers. The first is that overall educational policies at both the state and federal levels are moving toward “choice” models.

New charter and magnet schools open their doors every day, the federal No Child Left Behind Act enables families to leave schools with substandard academics, and open enrollment has become the norm. Parents today are more likely to see the high school in their backyard as just one of many options and to view shopping for a school as a logical move. In the process, many of them don’t understand that school shopping does not extend to high school athletics.

The growth of club sports has also made parents more accustomed to choice. Instead of athletes making their way through the lone youth sports program into middle school sports and then on to high school athletics, they have a plethora of club teams to choose from, starting at a very early age. Combine this with parents spending a lot of money on the club team, and there is pressure for the high school athletic program to deliver. And if it doesn’t, parents and athletes feel justified in looking for a new high school team—the same way they would have looked for a new club team.

“Club sports have become such a bigger part of students’ and families’ lives, and it climaxes when students get to high school,” Rashid says. “If something is just not right, they want to change schools.”

In response, athletic directors are attempting to be more proactive in educating parents that these choices aren’t a part of high school athletics. Ideally, this process should begin with junior high parents, even before they choose the high school their child will attend as a freshman.

“In communities where there are multiple high schools to choose from, athletic directors need to be part of open houses and information programs for eighth graders and stress to parents the importance of the choice they’re making,” says Rashid. “Help them understand that the idea is for their child to graduate from the school they enter as a freshman, not to try it out and move later.”

Once students enroll at a school and begin athletic participation, the message should be reiterated. “Make sure parents are aware of the transfer rules as soon as their child comes out for a sport,” advises Tackett. “In Kentucky, we use the pre-participation physical exam as an opportunity to educate parents. On one side of the form are the physical exam questions, and on the other is the transfer eligibility rule.

“We also ask our athletic directors to explain the transfer eligibility rules at preseason meetings,” he adds, “Because handing out a piece of paper isn’t enough—parents sign a million forms they never read. There also needs to be a discussion.”

And discussions need to continue throughout the athletes’ high school careers. For many parents, the impetus for transferring is the belief that being in the right high school program will help their child garner attention from college coaches and ensure an athletic scholarship. Debunking that myth is an important step to decreasing transfers.

Athletic directors can start by assuring parents and athletes that even on a small or marginally successful team, athletes will be seen if they have college potential. “I’ve been at this level for a long time, and I can assure you that if a student-athlete is good enough to play at Division I, he or she will be found,” says Jim Livengood, Athletic Director at the University of Arizona. “We recruit a great number of outstanding individual athletes from teams that haven’t had much success. The college recruiting process today is so thorough, talent is not going to get missed.”

Bruce Ward, District Athletic Director for the San Diego City School District, also takes the next step. “We work with parents to show them that there are things they can do to help their child be seen,” he says. “We help them figure out which five or 10 colleges they are interested in attending and send letters to each coach. It’s important to sit down with them and help them work out a plan because that will decrease the feeling that they need to move to another program to get a scholarship.”

Perhaps most powerfully, however, you can educate parents and athletes that hopping from team to team in the hopes of earning a scholarship can actually backfire and cost them college opportunities. “When they are recruiting, I tell my coaches to watch for athletes who have transferred around in high school. It’s a red flag for us,” Livengood says. “It’s not that we won’t recruit them, but we really look into it to find out if the move was for athletic reasons, because it can be very easy for that athlete to take the same path in the future. College coaches are looking for athletes who understand the value of finishing what you start.”

The second reason that athletically motivated transfers are on the rise is that increasingly complex family structures have made evaluating hardship cases much more difficult. “It was easy to write a rule in the 1980s that said an athlete had to play wherever his custodial parent lived,” Tackett says. “But custody arrangements are very complex now. I am familiar with one case in our state where custody on a kid changes every 24 hours, and these concepts are being tried all over the country. Trying to prevent athletically motivated transfers today is a very different challenge than it was in the past.”

“I see cases every year,” says Ward, “where an athlete lived in San Diego in ninth grade, moved in with an aunt in Louisiana for 10th grade, moved with the dad in Texas for 11th grade, and then moved back with another aunt in San Diego for 12th grade. The residential eligibility alone is a nightmare. Trying to make sure that those moves aren’t for athletic reasons is practically impossible.”

“We are not the FBI or the CIA, and that’s the kind of effort it would take at this point to track down and adjudicate all the students moving for athletic reasons,” says Rashid. “It’s a very difficult thing to prove and to police.”

One way state high school athletic associations and individual school districts are trying to make evaluation of hardship cases easier is by simply tightening up the rules and enforcing them more rigorously. For example, for private institutions in Maryland, which are governed by the Maryland Interscholastic Athletic Association (MIAA), better enforcement has meant a new waiver process that adds layers of scrutiny when a student wants to transfer. Like many associations, the MIAA has long had a rule that athletes who change schools after ninth grade forego a year of eligibility, but players can attempt to retain eligibility by proving the move was made for a non-athletic “hardship” cause.

In June, the MIAA instituted a new waiver process designed to make moving for athletic reasons discouragingly difficult. “When parents want a waiver, the first thing they have to do is to get a signed statement from their current school saying they’ve informed the administration that they want to leave,” MIAA Director Rick Diggs explains. “They file that statement with the MIAA, and we institute an application process involving both schools. The parents fill out a long questionnaire about their reasons for transferring. When we get the questionnaire back, the parents must come before our executive committee for an interview, and an un-appealable decision is made.

“We’ve made it so that they have to jump through so many hoops that those who want to change schools just to play on a different team will find the process much tougher,” Diggs continues. “And with the lengthy questionnaire, we’re able to piece together what’s actually going on when someone does apply for a waiver. The principals from each school sign off that they do not perceive an athletic motive, so their integrity is on the line.”

While it’s still fairly new, the bulkier process seems to be doing its job. “We usually get at least 12 waiver requests over the summer, and this summer, we got a total of four,” Diggs says.

At Rutherford (Tenn.) County Schools, James Evans, School and Community Relations Liaison, who handles all transfers, is applying the same principle at the district level. The fastest-growing district in the state with about two new high schools being built each year, Rutherford maintains strict attendance zones. As in Maryland, Tennessee Secondary School Athletic Association rules dictate a student-athlete who has played a sport and then transfers loses a year of eligibility unless he or she is granted a hardship waiver. But with its mobile population, Evans suspected that many waivers were being granted when motives were actually athletic.

To combat the problem, Rutherford instituted an application process similar to the MIAA’s. The waiver request now entails a questionnaire and must be signed by principals at both schools. Evans scrutinizes each request for athletic motives, regardless of whether the student has played a sport before. Each principal is also asked to provide an opinion as to whether the student is moving for a sports-related reason.

The added scrutiny has led to outcry from parents who say athletes are being held to a tougher standard than non-athletes. But Evans says the criticism won’t change the district’s stance. “We would rather be known for being tough on this issue than for allowing athletes to go wherever they want to go,” he says.

In addition to tougher enforcement, one Kentucky district has found success through writing its own rule that’s stricter than the overall rule set by its state association. Jefferson County Public Schools in Louisville makes every student who transfers after the ninth grade automatically ineligible for one year—regardless of whether they have previously played a sport and even if they qualify for one of the KHSAA’s eight hardship waivers. The hard-and-fast rule virtually eliminates athletically motivated transfers in the large, urban district, and saves the district the hassle and expense of investigating the legitimacy of hardship requests. “Our district felt that the best way to eliminate the problem was to go above and beyond the state rule,” says Jerry Wyman, District Athletic Director at Jefferson.

Ward believes that a final reason for the transfers is the increase in non-faculty coaches. “Sixty percent of coaches nationwide are not teachers,” Ward says. “Walk-on coaches are not as likely to embrace the philosophy of educational athletics, and when the coach stresses winning over the values of teamwork and loyalty, athletically motivated transferring onto and off of the team is more likely.”

“Walk-on coaches may believe they were simply hired to coach a sport,” McLaughlin adds. “Athletic directors need to do a better job of telling them, ‘I didn’t hire you to coach football. I hired you to teach kids, and your classroom is the football field. It is your job to teach values, not just win games.’”

One step to accomplishing this is to work closely with non-faculty coaches. “As an athletic director, I met three times as often with my walk-on coaches as with my teacher-coaches,” Ward says.

McLaughlin feels it’s also important to establish a department philosophy that rewards loyalty and which coaches abide by. “Establish a department policy that doesn’t allow athletes to be displaced, even by transfers that are approved by the state association,” McLaughlin adds. “Your loyalty belongs to the kids who have been there from ninth grade up.”

Tackett agrees. “Teach your coaches that if they want kids to be loyal to them, they need to be loyal to the kids already in their program,” he says. “That will discourage kids from trying to transfer out—they know they are really valued where they are. It will also discourage kids from trying to transfer in, because they know they’re not going to walk into a starting spot.”

Along the same lines, Ward suggests asking coaches to build teams that are close-knit and where athletes feel valued. “It starts long before athletes even think of moving,” he says. “Build close relationships with athletes and parents, and make sure your coaches understand that connecting with kids, not winning games, is their main job. Especially make sure that the coaches you have at the freshman level know how to create strong ties that continue throughout the program.

“There will always be a star coach or a championship program next door,” Ward adds. “But when you build close relationships, when parents and kids get to know you and the integrity of your program, that’s worth more than 600 wins. Once parents know that you genuinely want what’s best for their kid and that you’re invested in their long-term success, they are not going to want to leave.”

Undue Influence
Hand in hand with athletically motivated transferring goes another unsavory trend—coaches, parents, other athletes, or unrelated adults attempting to recruit high school athletes away from one team and to another. Also called "exerting undue influence," it can be as hard to police as athletically motivated transferring.

Making sure coaches know what constitutes undue influence and that it is against the rules is the first step. “In every preseason meeting, we go straight to the bylaw from the Kentucky High School Athletic Association and define undue influence for coaches,” says Jerry Wyman, District Athletic Director for Jefferson County Public Schools in Louisville, Ky. “We continually educate coaches about what recruiting is and what the consequences for it are.”

You can also prepare your coaches for how to respond properly when an athlete from another school talks to them about transferring. “Teach your coaches that the proper response when an athlete approaches them is, ‘Thanks for your interest, but you’re already playing for a great program and I’d encourage you to stay and do your best there,’” says Bill McLaughlin, Assistant Commissioner of the San Diego section of the California Interscholastic Federation.

The next step is to control those outside the school. “The hard part is controlling the behavior of parents, volunteers, and other people who attach themselves to a program,” says Bruce Ward, District Athletic Director for the San Diego City School District. “The solution is for coaches to communicate with these individuals about recruiting. They need to tell them, ‘I do not want you going up to Johnny who plays for High School A and talking to him about coming to our school. That is illegal, and it can severely damage our team’s reputation and lead to sanctions.’”

Athletic directors have to be continually vigilant to keep recruiting from happening, says Tom Rashid, Associate Director of the Michigan High School Athletic Association. “If an athletic director has any reason to believe a student has been recruited, they need to communicate immediately with the athletic director of the other school involved,” he says. “Do not ignore it. Send a letter, make a phone call. You may not be able to prove it this time, but word will get out that you are aware of what’s happening. If you ignore it, it will escalate.”

“Athletic directors also need to create a climate where coaches don’t feel badly about reporting violators, whether they’re parents or opposing coaches,” adds Julian Tackett, Assistant Commissioner of the Kentucky High School Athletic Association. “Many times, coaches don’t want to be seen as ‘telling’ on each other. But athletic directors have to stress the importance of coaches communicating with them when they think high school recruiting is going on.”

Neighbors in Arms
Along with working with parents and coaches in their own athletic departments, some athletic directors are teaming up with their peers in neighboring districts to stop athletically motivated transfers before they happen. Bruce Ward, District Athletic Director for the San Diego City School District, was able to do just that in his previous position.

“I worked as an athletic director in one of our San Diego schools, and another school in our area was much more affluent,” he says. “The first year I was the athletic director, I went to a football game and 12 of their 22 starters should have been attending our school but had transferred there. I developed a relationship with that school’s athletic director and brought up the problem. I said, ‘We all want competitive equity and quality programs. What can we do to stop this trend?’

“We started working together,” Ward continues. “If one of us heard that a player was trying to transfer to our school, we called the other up and let them know so that they could talk to the family and work out whatever problems they were having. The transfers slowed to a trickle and eventually stopped. That kind of trust and communication between athletic directors is key.”