Well, no live show today, so I should probably rattle the cages a bit with a big proposal in front of the WIAA this week. The proposal is for non-public schools to receive a 1.65 multiplier on enrollment for the purposes of placement in divisions for the postseason in WIAA-sponsored sports, based on enrollment shortly after the beginning of the school year (third Friday in September). The multiplier is static and doesn't go up or down based on performance (as it does in some states)--1.65 for a private school whether you're a basketball powerhouse like Whitefish Bay Dominican or an occasionally-frisky squad like Eau Claire Immanuel Lutheran.
First, some backstory on yours truly. I grew up in Cadott. Spent my freshman year warming the bench as our football team won the 1999 state championship and jacking up ill-advised threes as a wiry 14-year-old while (much) better athletes like Matt Riley battled and scrapped for points in the paint because, again, I was tiny. Cadott, of course, is a public school. During my freshman year, as is prone to happen in situations where the parents are divorced and live miles away from each other, the custody agreement arranged for me to have my primary residence in Cadott, but to attend school during the week at Flambeau.
I might be the worst open-enrollment varsity athlete in Wisconsin's history.
This arrangement lasted through graduation for me, where I went from avoiding contact as a puny freshman to mostly getting in the way on some really good Flambeau teams in football and basketball (led by Jim Leonhard at first and later by Ross Ellwanger). So, due to circumstances that had nothing to do with me wanting to play for a winner (although I lucked out into being on football teams that went 14-0, 11-1, 8-3, and 11-1, no thanks to me), I got to open enroll and be a part of some pretty solid sports teams at two very small public schools.
When I first heard about the multiplier for non-public schools, I thought about how many times I was told that private schools recruit and that any time we'd play them, we'd be at a big disadvantage because their whole team was recruited. Never from a coach mind you (again, in terms of luck in playing for coaches, I was incredibly fortunate to have the ones I had), but from fans, other players, parents, or anyone hanging around our teams. From a very early age, I was taught that private schools recruited and that was a bad thing, or at least told that. It's still common even today, more than a decade after all the state's schools got tossed into one big division, public or private, for people to talk about recruiting by private schools.
It's hard for me to accept that private schools are the only ones recruiting, first of all. Open enrollment is a pretty easy process. My case, of course, is a slam dunk: my parents are divorced and it was part of the custody arrangement. Had open enrollment required me to miss any sort of extracurricular activity, I'm pretty sure that would've been overturned based on the situation. (I realize that recently, sweeping rule changes meant that there was no chance of appeal; that if you open enrolled, you were out for a year... which I'll get back to in a minute). No judge wants to deny a kid the chance to participate in things in school.
The reason why it's hard for me to accept that is that I saw recruiting happening right in front of me, even here in western Wisconsin. Sure, none of the recruits would go on to play college or pro ball for the most part, but when you talk about small schools in the Lakeland or Cloverbelt conference, do you realize how hard it is to compete with any other schools when you've got freshmen on varsity? Cadott went from an undefeated state championship in 1999 to without a varsity football program in just TWELVE years. (It's back now, by the way, after a two-year hiatus). It seems like half of the Lakeland conference teams are in 8-man football, with the manifest destiny of most of the rest being either that or a co-op with a nearby town. Rivals like Lake Holcombe and Cornell, for example, began co-op in football last year after both teams dealt with so many injuries that they had multiple freshmen starting both ways.
The point is that to compete, you need players. Even if they're not any good, like in my case. If you're willing to suit up, that gets you to a certain acceptable number of student-athletes to go play a varsity sport. Anyone who tells you numbers aren't the most important thing in football--they're lying. You'll have some talented players, of course, who can make an impact--for small schools, it's a once-in-a-generation thing. Usually, though, successful programs at any school have a large number of athletes out for a sport, whether it's football or anything else. It's why open enrollment can be used to add to those numbers.
A multiplier is not the answer to a fairer competitive balance. I'm not sure things are unfair as they are. Basing divisions on enrollment is probably as close as we'll get to it, and the product in the tournaments as they exist is simply outstanding. I've been a part of or covering high school sports for almost two decades--I'm relatively young so I can't claim more experience than that--and it's just as good now as it was when I was running water bottles to thirsty players on the sideline as a fourth grader. I love calling games on the radio. I don't even think in terms of public vs private school--it's irrelevant. Maybe that's because we have a grand total of THREE private schools in the immediate area (Regis, Immanuel Lutheran, and McDonell)--that could be skewing my perception.
That's actually a fair point of contention--I grew up in an area with very few private schools. Cadott played Regis, McDonell, and (I think) ECIL, but Flambeau didn't. In my entire four-year public school athletic career, I think I can count on one hand how many times a team I played on competed against a private school. I seriously doubt too that others in this area feel too badly about having to occasionally play Regis or McDonell (or their co-op) in a sport--I'm naïve in this, but I'd like to believe that you'd want to play top competition as much as possible, of course assuming that the top competition would be the handful of private schools in western Wisconsin. As pointed out by Ross Roehl, assistant coach at ECIL in this post at WisSports.net, there's also evidence that perhaps private schools aren't as dominant as the public believes them to be.
This debate probably matters more to the urban areas of Wisconsin, where there are, of course, more private schools. The petition to consider this multiplier included just twelve schools that could loosely be considered northwestern Wisconsin, and I had to include Butternut, Colby, and Black River Falls into that dozen. It's also not much of a coincidence that five Cloverbelt schools--who face Regis and McDonell on a regular basis--signed on to this petition. Thorp, Colby, and Stanley-Boyd all appear on the list. A perceived competitive disparity is one of the biggest arguments in favor of the multiplier. It's also not surprising that six Lakeland schools, who could benefit from low-enrollment private schools like McDonell and ECIL moving up a division, are on the list too.
Outside of directly competing with these schools, one of the other factors is division placement for schools that are consistently around the dividing lines for postseason placement. A school competing in a lower division, as logic may suggest, would result in perhaps a deeper postseason run, resulting in more chances to host postseason tournament games. Everyone, from administration to coaches to players to parents, wants to be a part of a winner. Being placed in a lower division gives you more chances to win, especially in the postseason, or so the theory goes.
So much of the attention is being paid to the ages-old public vs private school debate. What people forget is that the parents of the athletes ultimately make these decisions, not the schools. Stanley-Boyd, for example, saw basketball talents like Connor Miller and Evan Anderson both decide to play instead at Eau Claire Regis and Eau Claire North in recent years. Without even pretending to know the circumstances, I can imagine the Orioles might have been very good with two D1 prospects in the fold. Instead, the athletes found themselves in a more urban area with greater media exposure, (arguably) better competition, and better facilities or opportunities to work on their craft. I will blindly say that none of this seems weird to me, since the public vs private debate probably is more urban vs rural in terms of how the perceived disparity in fairness in competition is interpreted. Of course urban areas will have some advantages--there's more people!
I don't take sides in most arguments, mostly because I don't see myself as any important voice of opinion when it comes to local athletics. I was the worst athlete in the history of the state, and some would argue my broadcasting talents could be even lesser than that. For me, I see the multiplier itself as fundamentally unfair--how do you count students as something other than the number one? If I'm walking the halls of Eau Claire Regis, suddenly I'm worth an extra nearly two-thirds of a person when it comes to deciding a playoff bracket? That doesn't make sense. Granted, I mostly was a D student, but at its most simplistic level, making a student worth some made-up multiplier number just because they're attending a non-public school is sort of absurd.
Open enrollment is probably a more worthy debate, mostly because it involves public schools (who are funded by, well, the public). A stud player (or family of players) going from one district to a different public school district is probably going to upset the ledgers of schools involved. Private schools aren't the problem, nor is the current setup of divisions in our state's high school playoffs. The problem is the long-held perception that private schools, because they have the advantage of taking any student in provided they pay their tuition (and that falls on the parents in most cases), can "recruit" anyone they want. That private schools have the facilities, money, and time to spend wooing student-athletes to come play for their program and dominate all of the little public schools in the area. That's silly.
Recruiting happens at every school, public or not. Open enrollment is not very well regulated, outside of the occasional transfer legislation that is often meant as a knee-jerk reaction to the surprising amount of student movement in districts every year. I don't think public-to-private school migration is the issue; usually you can point to rural-to-urban school migration as the cause of dropping enrollments at smaller schools across the state. As I described in the case of Stanley-Boyd, two division one scholarship athletes left the district to schools in an urban area. This happens everywhere. It's not unfair or something we need to punish private schools for--it's just what it is. I moved from my hometown to Eau Claire (and then Madison, and then Los Angeles) to pursue bigger opportunities not available in Cadott, Lake Holcombe, Sheldon, Tony, or Lake Wissota. None of those places even have a radio station. It's not much different in the cases of student athletes--they're just seeking the best opportunity for themselves, and who wouldn't want that for their own children? As it's shown here in a report done by WQOW TV-18, there's plenty of evidence that it's more a matter of the opportunities available to student-athletes in an urban area as opposed to a rural area, rather than a private vs public debate.
I've never been a fan of sweeping legislation or regulation that punishes everyone for the successes or failures of a relative few. I don't see how a multiplier can benefit or improve an already-great product in high school athletics. The opportunities today are tremendous, no matter where you are at; technology has made it so that if you're really good at what you do, you'll probably get noticed and have the opportunity to play beyond high school. Education, of course, is ultimately the prize here, and the privilege of competing in athletics is a part of that. How does making a rule change affecting non-public schools affect the student-athletes of the state of Wisconsin--as a whole--in a positive way? It's a great question, one already similarly posed here in Eau Claire by the Leader-Telegram's Joe Ziemer.
I don't have the answer, but my inclination is to say no. I'm actually proud of the fact that the administrations of both Cadott and Flambeau--the two small public schools I attended--didn't sign the petition to get this multiplier out in front of the WIAA. Flambeau has a clear chance to move down a division in basketball, for example, if the multiplier comes into play, so to see that they didn't sign this petition was pretty cool to me personally. I'm also not necessarily disappointed in the area schools that did sign the petition--I can see how they might view this as a positive for their districts and their programs, if private schools got bumped up a notch. I just don't agree with it, and since I'm not administration, or a coach, or a player, or a parent... my opinion is quite irrelevant.
However, as a broadcaster, supporter, and fan of Wisconsin high school athletics, I fail to see the greater benefit of this proposal. I think the system in place, while imperfect, is pretty decent, and that the arguments presented tend to be (publicly) steered towards that same old public vs private school debate that will still be going on a hundred years from now. I just don't see how you can count a student as something more than a student for the purposes of leveling a playing field that is allegedly unfair. Doesn't it seem sort of ironic that if private schools are considered so much better, that conceding their students are worth 1.65 of a public school student is somehow a valid solution to the perceived imbalance in high school sports?