When it comes to naming a champion for an entire state composed of so many different types of high schools, state high school athletic associations consider school enrollment and other factors aimed at leveling the competitive playing field.
In Illinois, for example, schools compete in enrollment-based classifications at state tournaments. There’s a state champ in classes 1A through 8A in football, say. Larger private schools in the state, though, effectively compete in more competitive classes by having their enrollments multiplied by a factor of 1.65 before placing the school in a class. Maryland doesn’t mix public and private schools in state tournaments, so there are different class champions among private schools and among public schools.
Schools in Michigan, where public schools compete in the same state championship tournaments as private schools but don’t use any kind of enrollment adjustment, have been debating for several years whether to create a separate athletic association for private schools that can draw students from anywhere, regardless of what school district they live in.
- Read and sign the petition, if you want
Jake Heilman, a junior at Forest Hills Central High School in Grand Rapids, wrote a report for his student newspaper, The Central Trend, in which he outlines the debate and presents opinions on many sides of the issue.
With the permission of the faculty advisor, we present his report here.
For many years, there has been an argument over whether athletic teams from private and public schools should compete against each other. It has come to many people’s attention as of late that a newly made petition has been formed and a stance has been taken for the public schools to “have what they deserve.”
The result of the petition: private schools would have their own postseason tournament to allow public schools a better chance at winning a state championship. Private schools would, of course, be able to play public teams throughout the season and have their respective conferences stay similar to what they are now.
The reasons why some are in favor of the petition
When you look at the difference in the two contrasting sides, there are similarities and differences. Throughout the season, all teams play the same amount of games against conference opponents, to be awarded a conference title. The teams then go into a grueling playoff battle. Some look at the teams, however, and recognize perennial powerhouses with a few new faces in the lineup each year.
Students have transferred, whether for religious purposes, educational purposes, or even based on family history or other factors.
The topic of recruiting has also been thrown around into the conversation when it comes to the schools and their team’s needs. Private schools have oftentimes been accused of creating ‘super teams’ and offering unauthorized athletic money to athletes transferring and/or enrolling in their programs. With the recruiting topic being long argued, head basketball coach at FHC, Ken George, has a different idea of why private schools need their own tournament.
“I think there are valid arguments and statistics that prove it is not a level playing field,” George said. “Now would it be an ideal situation if we made a private school league? I think there would still be issues, but there are issues right now. I certainly think something needs to be looked at.”
In boys’ basketball alone, private schools have brought home a cumulative of 31 percent of the state titles since 2000 according to fairplayoffs.com. Last season, however U of D Jesuit brought home the only Michigan High School Athletic Association state championship for private schools in Class A. They defeated a public school in that particular final.
If the sport of basketball would see a change, it may not affect FHC, but it can hit home closer than you think.
“If you look at a school like Forest Hills Eastern, who is in a league with Grand Rapids Christian, it’s clearly an unfair advantage,” George said. “These schools are the same size but the skill levels on the two teams aren’t close in comparison—especially to a school that is able to pull from anywhere in comparison to a school that is only able to pull from one geographical region. Just because the schools are similar in size doesn’t mean that the people they’re pulling from aren’t completely different.”
Not all sports can be as evident of the private vs. public dilemma faced constantly like men’s basketball can. Wrestling is one particular sport that shows that side the most. FHC’s head wrestling coach, Brad Anderson, lives in a different world when it comes to his sport of wrestling.
“If you look at football this year, it was an overwhelming majority of schools who won state titles that were private,” said Anderson, who wrestled at FHC throughout his high school career. “There is some sort of advantage there, being able to attract students while circumnavigating some MHSAA requirements. Wrestling has been interesting, because a lot of the top schools are also public. We do have, at the Division One level, Detroit Catholic Central who is a high-powered team, but they got beat last year by a public school in the state finals.”
The issue of ‘super teams’ being formed is another issue being brought to attention.
“It’s not always public vs. private, but it’s the all-star team,” Anderson said. “I’m very proud that our team is home-grown and has been born and raised here. It’s easier to do the all-star team at a parochial school because of the limited restrictions upon those schools for enrollment. I hearken back to the day when your team was the guys you played in little league with. Your team is the guy you came up in rocket football with. I would love to see a level playing field, where it’s my talent vs. your talent, and not how well you can assemble a squad.”
Reasons against the petition
When you look at the extensive sides of the argument in favor of public schools, some can forget the ability of public to beat private on many different occasions. For example, last lacrosse season, FHC beat one of the top Division One lacrosse schools in the state, Detroit Catholic Central, on the road to their state finals appearance and eventual state title.
There have been instances throughout the past seventeen years that can be overlooked by recent uprisings and petitions for the “league of their own.” Under 25 percent of state titles have been won by private schools in wrestling, both boys’ and girls’ cross country, girls’ golf, boys’ and girls’ bowling, competitive cheer, boys’ and girls’ skiing, boys’ swimming, girls’ lacrosse, softball, and track and field. Although one could look down upon these sports and dub them as “smaller” or “less popular,” it’s still a numerous amount of sports.
The competition level that private schools bring cannot be overlooked, especially when it comes down to the state championship. Detroit Catholic Central athletic director Aaron Babicz believes you’re taking away competition from athletes.
“Here’s my biggest thing,” he said. “Let’s say you play for a public school and you end up having a great run and win the state title. Let’s also say that Brother Rice is the team to beat that year and ends up winning the entire private school bracket. Don’t our athletes want to know who is truly the best? Wouldn’t you want to know who is really the outright state champ? I feel like if you asked the guys they’d say they’d be missing out on that experience.
“I think that in situations like this, it’s all about competing,” Babicz said. “It goes beyond high school athletics and into life. Cards will always be stacked against you one way or another. There will always be someone bigger and better, and you just have to fight. It goes back to the kids. I guarantee these kids would not want this kind of change to be made.”
What it would take to change the MHSAA completely
Obviously, when looking into something as major as splitting off a section of schools completely, it will take more than just a simple petition. It would require numerous meetings and numerous votes to make any sort of change in the MHSAA. FHC Athletic Director Clark Udell highlighted what public schools need for their cause.
“I think the petition will at least put a little more emphasis into what has been perceived as whining,” said Udell, who enters his 10th year as the athletic director at FHC. “The petition online goes back historically and shows the percentages of state championships won by private in comparison to public. It will hopefully put the topic on the radar for the MHSAA.”
But the MHSAA works for the schools and members who belong to the association, including the private schools. Creating two separate leagues isn’t the only alternative.
“There are ways to address public vs. private issues throughout high school sports without separation,” Udell said. “I think you look to add a multiplier to the enrollment. Let’s say Grand Rapids Catholic Central has 1,000 students, and you would use a 1.5 multiplier. So instead of being put in classification with schools that have 1,000 students, they would be put into a class closer to schools with 1,500 students instead.”
Still, Udell said, the impact on athletic programs might not be big. In every sport except football, he pointed out, every team makes the playoffs anyway. Plus, “it’s not going to affect the regular season. Schools are still going to one another. I really don’t think it would affect the postseason tournament much, either. You draw a district, a regional, and that’s where you go. Each sport would be a little bit different, but it would really just change the paradigm.”