Archive for July, 2014

SPORTSMANSHIP: Are Mercy Rules Truly the Best Way to Handle Lopsided Scores?

At first blush, as a sports fan, you might immediately think that having a written “mercy rule” in place is one of those rules that makes a lot of sense. After all, who wants to have their youngster play on the short side of a lopsided score?

Mercy rules are put in place to basically shorten the game in a one-sided affair. That might mean shaving off a few innings of a baseball or softball game, or letting the clock run in football, ice hockey, or basketball games.

But as Doug Abrams pointed out this AM on my radio show, the implications of mercy rules – although clearly well intended – often bring complicating aspects that usually weren’t intended. For starters, the term itself – mercy rule – immediately conveys a sense of unwanted sympathy. That is, no competitive athlete ever wants to associated with a term that basically denigrates their abilities. No athlete ever wants to be the focal point of being on a team that was beaten so badly that the mercy rule had to be invoked.

As Professor Abrams points out, the real reason for these mercy rules is supposed to be preventive – as in, to prevent kids on the losing team from running the risk of being physically injured. It’s presumed that the winning team is most likely bigger and stronger than the losing squad, and thus the concern to reduce the risk of physical harm.

But as Doug suggests, perhaps the term should be “Safety Assurance” suggesting that it has nothing to do with feeling sorry for the losing team, but rather the rule is more about making sure kids stay healthy. I think Doug makes an excellent point, and I would strongly suggest HS athletic associations all over the country actively start to rename their mercy rules.

In addition, Doug and I both agree that we would like the refs and officials who are working the games to take a more pro-active approach. If a game is clearly getting out of hand by half-time, then the ref should gather the two opposing coaches at half-time, and discuss how they feel about running the clock in the second half, or taking other measures to ensure that the rest of the game is played safely and fairly.  I know that puts extra pressure on a ref, but I think it’s smart to empower the ref, and it also makes certain that the coaches keep their perspective on what is transpiring.

Besides, I would like to believe that most coaches today would do the right thing if they find themselves on the winning side of a lopsided score. That is, make sure that the reserves get plenty of playing time, or make sure that the kids in a basketball or hockey game do a lot of extra passing before taking a shot. And of course, be sure not to do a full-court press in a basketball game. Or in hockey or soccer, have the defensive players move up to offense, and the traditional scorers move back to defense.

And above all, the coach should remind his/her players not to taunt or make fun of their opponents. That just goes to basic sportsmanship.

In tournament play, in order to avoid the run-the-score-up mentality, one caller suggested, in a tie-breaker situation, that teams advance by keeping track of how few goals or runs they allow. Doug and I both felt that was an excellent suggestion, because it eliminates the desire to develop a lopsided score.

But there are other complications. Another caller suggested that a baseball coach might actually want to run the score quickly in a game so that innings are chopped off at the end of the game. Why? Because it means that winning coach doesn’t have to have his pitcher throw extra innings. Again, that’s a good point.

So what’s the bottom line? Well, above all, we do hope and expect winning coaches to be respectful when it comes to lopsided games. There are plenty of ways to make sure a score remains a definitive win, but without having a ridiculous score.

Secondly, here’s hoping the refs and officials step up if they sense the score is getting out of control. The refs rule the game, and they can intervene if they think the coaches aren’t seeing the entire picture of good sportsmanship.

And finally, don’t ever think that the kids on the losing team are going to be suicidal because they are being drubbed. Doug related the story of a youth hockey team he coached which travelled two hours to play in a game. Doug’s team was getting beaten soundly, but when the ref asked at the end of the second period if they wanted to run the clock in the third, the kids universally replied, “Heck, no, we drove two hours to get here – we want to get as much ice time as we can.”

In other words, the kids knew they were losing big….but they still wanted to play. Kids, even when they lose by a big score, tend to be a lot more resilient than many coaches or parents give them credit for.

That kind of insight is worth keeping in mind. Remember, never overlook what the kids want to do.

 

SPORTSMANSHIP: “Mercy Rules” May Have Good Intentions, But Are They Always the Best Solution?

 

Mercy Rules

By Doug Abrams

 

In late May, the Ohio High School Athletic Association announced that beginning this season, football games will play the second half with a running clock whenever one team takes a lead of thirty points or more. A stop-time clock would resume when the differential falls below thirty. The association reportedly acted after one game last season ended with a lopsided 98-20 score.

Actually that score was not so bad, at least if you compare it to other recently reported football blowouts, such as an 88-0 finale in Iowa and a 91-0 finale in Texas.  And blowouts are not only a football issue, as a recent 45-0 Florida softball score and a recent 100-2 Kentucky middle school basketball score demonstrate.

Several states have mercy rules that, like the one announced in Ohio, seek to hasten the end of especially one-sided high school games. Once a game reaches the prescribed score differential, the general approaches are either to run the clock in sports such as football and basketball that depend on time, or to call the game prematurely in sports such as softball and baseball.

Pros and Cons

Mercy rules engage spark passionate debate. Proponents tend to defend them as safety measures because blowouts often stem from mismatched size and talent that invite injury, particularly in contact and collision sports. They also argue that mismatches bring undue public embarrassment to the team on the short end. They say that running up a score demonstrates lack of sportsmanship.

Opponents of mercy rules tend to argue that teams should not be shielded from even lopsided losses because losing and winning are each part of the sports learning process. A solid defeat, they say, might even spur players on losing team to strive harder to improve their game. Opponents also argue that invoking a mercy rule can be more embarrassing to the underdogs than the lopsided score itself. Coaches of strong teams tend to argue that without having sportsmanship forced on them by mandate, they can help control scores by adjusting their lineups and game plans,

Prevention

In interscholastic sports and youth sports leagues alike, mismatches do not normally happen by surprise. Unless one roster is suddenly depleted by illness or injury, mismatches are often predictable from imbalance that is apparent during the preseason period or early in the schedule.

As Benjamin Franklin said, an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure. Sometimes weaker teams can prevent impending mismatches by scheduling games carefully with teams of similar ability. If teams cannot influence the schedule that way, they may be able to join a division in which they are likely to be competitive. I have seen youth teams, for example, chronically lose big because parents and coaches, acting for their own egos, set up the team for failure by committing to the A Division rather than the B Division.  Indeed, in some youth leagues, teams are encouraged or required to play preseason “declaration games,” exhibitions that enable league officials and coaches themselves to determine each team’s best placement.

In any league, one team will finish at the top and another at the bottom. Competition challenges players best, however, when they sense that they have a fair chance in most or all games. In my forty years as a youth hockey coach, my teams occasionally won big and occasionally lost big, but the best games were ones in which the outcome was not a foregone conclusion, one way or the other.

Sometimes, however, teams cannot determine their own schedule or placement.  A high school, for example, might have to play in a particular division for such factors as geography, the size of the school’s enrollment, or lack of sufficient divisions to permit truly competitive placement.  The pros and cons of mercy rules then move front and center.

Tough Calls

In interscholastic and youth league sports, mercy rules depend on tough calls. I know responsible people who support them, and I know responsible people who oppose them. I do not question the motives or intent of either group. At the end of the day:

  1. I favor mercy rules when league officials find them advisable to help promote player safety in contact and collision sports. When one football team trounces another by 50 points, for example, significant size and weight disparities likely helped explain the outcome. These disparities can also increase risk of injury to the members of the outclassed team. Last November, an Arizona high school football player died from a traumatic brain injury suffered in the fourth quarter of a first-round playoff game that his team lost, 60-6.

 

2. I do not support mercy rules as measures to help spare the sensibilities of chronic underdogs. I believe that kids can absorb tough defeats with proper support and guidance from their parents and coaches, and I think that ending games prematurely can be as embarrassing as the scores themselves.

3. In the absence of genuine safety concerns about seriously one-sided games, I would prefer to trust coaches of both teams to manage the situation and use the games as learning opportunities. At least in my experience, most coaches do not betray that trust. Most do not enjoy humiliating adolescent opponents, and most recognize that winning big can sometimes hurt even the winners by encouraging them to arrive at the next game with inflated egos, mentally unprepared for a tougher matchup. When a newspaper reports an outlandish score such as the ones that opened this column, the story tends to chronicle a coach who fell short.

The stronger team’s coach can take reasonable measures to help control a one-sided score by fielding second- and third-stringers, players who normally do not get much playing time (and who lose out on playing time altogether when a mercy rule short-circuits the game).

The stronger team’s coach can also adjust the game plan. When my youth hockey teams found themselves on the top end of a lopsided score, for example, I usually asked our players at the bench whether they wanted to continue running up the score, or else whether they wanted to slow things down. They usually made the right choice, which is a learning experience in itself.

Our defense would then play forward, and our forwards would play defense, another learning experience because versatility is a plus on any team whose roster might be short some day from illness, injury or family commitments.  I would encourage three or four passes in the offensive zone before a shot, useful because youth hockey players can always use more practice with their passing, especially in game situations. Sometimes we worked on new plays and patterns that we had not had much chance to try in games.

The weaker team’s coach can score points with their players by showing the support that causes kids to respect their leaders. It does not hurt kids to hear that some teams are simply better than they are, and that continued hard work toward improvement remains a worthwhile goal. The best athletes learn how to win by learning how to lose.

 

[Source: Rob Oller, Does Running Clock in Prep Football Soften Game?, Columbus (Ohio) Dispatch, May 24, 2014, p. 1C; Sport Shorts, New York Post, Nov. 13, 2013, p. 57]

GETTING CUT FROM A TEAM: Always a Difficult Moment for Athlete, Coach, and Parent

There are very few moments as potentially devastating in a young athlete’s life than trying out for a team and not making the final roster.

Of course, when kids are first introduced to youth sports, everybody who tries out for the team makes the team. That’s a given in pretty much every youth sport.

But once a kid is a few years in – sometimes as young as age 7 or 8 – suddenly tryouts begin to pop up on the horizon, and kids now find themselves auditioning to be one of the lucky ones to make the “prestigious” team. As any parent who has lived through this will tell you, the tension of watching your little one go through the tryout process is matched only by the anxiety and frustration if your child doesn’t make the team. That is, what do you tell an 8-year-old who doesn’t make the local travel soccer team, or hockey club?

Is it possible that an 8-year-old is already a “has-been” at that young an age?

But for better or worse, our athletic society is constantly filled with tryouts and attempts to make the team. Most parents are already familiar with the horror stories of having their youngster try out for a travel team, only to discover that the team’s roster was already pre-selected by the coach who runs the program. That of course is not only not fair and unethical, but it places the parent in the awkward position of trying to explain to their child that the try outs were not done in an equal manner. Kids at age 10 or younger can’t usually understand that kind of underhanded play.

But let’s say that the try outs were fair, and that the coach was doing his best to evaluate the talent honestly. If, at the end of the try out sessions, the coach decides that your child isn’t going to make the squad, it’s always preferable if the coach can find the time to sit down with the youngster, explain what specific parts of their game they need to improve, give them a real pat on the back, and encourage to work hard and to try out again next year.

There’s no good way to give a kid bad news, but this personal approach is probably the best. Remember, Coach, for a youngster, not making a team will put them in an immediate awkward position with their peers (especially if some of them DO make the team), it will embarrass them in front of their expectant parents, and all in all, will be a devastating blow to their self-esteem.

The very best coaches know this, and as such, work hard to express compassion and sensitivity to the athlete. Yes, this one-to-one approach does take time, but remember, in a few days, you and the excited kids who did make the cut will be focusing on the upcoming season. For the kids who didn’t make the team, their plans are dashed, and now they have to figure out what’s the next move in their young lives.

One of the callers on my show today suggested that in order to avoid cuts, because he hates them so much, he invites only 15 kids to be on his elite travel baseball team. That’s one approach to get around cuts, but I do wonder as to what happens if one or two of those 15 kids isn’t as good as the others. Do they get relegated to the bench, and subsequently less playing time? That has the potential to cause even bigger issues during the course of the season.

Another caller suggested there are other programs where there’s a no-cut policy. That is, every kid who tries out makes the team, but there’s never any guarantee of playing time. So a kid can go to practice every day, and tell his friends he’s on the team, but never, ever see any playing time.

To me, that’s not fair. Coach, just cut the kid. If you allow him to linger on, he will keep alive the flicker of hope that, somehow, he will catch your eye and get some game action. You’re better off asking the youngster if he can find some other outside activity that might appeal to him. Remember, there’s no dishonor in being cut. Every athlete goes through the process at one time or another.

In my next column, I will address the role of the parents when their kids are cut from a team. As we all know, parents have become a real force when it comes to intervening with coaches.

 

COPING WITH ADVERSITY: The Long and “Short” of Jose Altuve

Allow me to digress for a moment, but I just have to mention what a thrill I get every time I see Jose Altuve play for the Houston Astros – and especially this past week in Major League Baseball’s All-Star game.

If you don’t know who he is – and that’s possible since he plays for a team which has been rebuilding for the last few years – just know this about Jose:  He’s from Venezuela and he stands 5-5 and weighs 155 pounds. And yet, he hits over .300 every year and occasionally hits a ball over the fence.

But the real story is that when Jose was when he was 16 and went to to a two-day tryout for some Astros scouts. On the first day, there were two scouts who were running the tryout. They both took a look at the diminutive second baseman (who at that time was 5-3 and 140 pounds) and politely told Jose not to bother to come back for the second day of tryouts.

In other words, he was too small, and was cut.

But Jose was not to be deterred. As he explains, “The next day there was supposed to be about 10 scouts there – not just two as there was on the first day — so I just figured that my odds were better with more scouts in attendance.”

Sure enough, he DID come back the next day, impressed the scouts who were there, and he was signed. They were impressed with his superior speed, great glove, exceptional range in the field, and of course, he could flat out hit. Despite his size, he was the complete package.

There’s an old saying in sports that the little guys have to show that they can…and the big guys have to show that they can’t. And that kind of drive propelled Jose Altuve right to the big leagues. He’s hit .300 at every level of the game.

In short (no pun intended), he’s a Major League All-Star.

LEGAL CONCERNS: Making Sure ALL Kids Are Given An Equal Chance in Sports

 

 

New Jersey Legislation Guarantees Equal Opportunity for

Student-Athletes With Disabilities

 

By Doug Abrams

Bipartisanship is often in short supply these days, but on June 19 New Jersey Governor Chris Christie signed an important bill that had passed both houses of the state legislature without a single negative vote. Beginning in the 2015-2016 academic year, the bill will guarantee elementary and secondary students with disabilities an equal opportunity to participate in interscholastic sports. Public school districts (1) must ensure equal opportunity in physical activity programs, classroom activities that involve physical activity, and athletics programs, and (2) must provide reasonable modifications, aids or services to secure that opportunity.

The two requirements will apply unless, in a particular case, a student’s participation would pose a health or safety risk to the student or others, or would fundamentally alter the nature of the program. In such a case, the school district must make reasonable efforts to provide the student an opportunity to participate in an existing community program.

The 2013 Federal Directive

The New Jersey bill comes little more than a year after the U.S. Department of Education instructed the nation’s public school districts that federal disability law requires them to “provide students with disabilities an equal opportunity to participate alongside their peers in after-school athletics.” Secretary of Education Arne Duncan said that public schools “may not exclude students who have an intellectual, developmental, physical, or any other disability from trying out and playing on a team, if they are otherwise qualified.” “While it’s the coach’s job to pick the best team,” he continued, “students with disabilities must be judged based on their individual abilities, and not excluded because of generalizations, assumptions, prejudices, or stereotypes.”

“[S]chools don’t have to change the essential rules of the game,” Secretary Duncan explained, “and they don’t have to do anything that would provide a student with a disability an unfair competitive advantage.  But they do need to make reasonable modifications (such as using a laser instead of a starter pistol to start a race so a deaf runner can compete) to insure that students with disabilities get the very same opportunity to play as everyone else.”

“Full Educational Opportunity”

Initiatives such as the Education Department’s 2013 directive and last month’s New Jersey legislation show how far we have come as a nation since the early 1970s, when more than half the nation’s eight million students with disabilities were still isolated, ignored, warehoused in school, or denied an education altogether.

In 1975, Congress enacted landmark legislation now called the Individuals With Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), which guarantees “full educational opportunity to all children with disabilities.” Federal disability law recognizes that “full educational opportunity” includes equal opportunity to participate in interscholastic sports programs and other physical activities that remain central to elementary and secondary education.

The IDEA has been called the “third revolution in American education,” following enactment of compulsory education acts more than a century ago and the Supreme Court’s Brown v. Board of Education school desegregation decision in 1954. Amid bitter partisanship during years marked by Democratic and Republican ascendency alike, overwhelming bipartisan majorities in Congress have approved the IDEA and its periodic reauthorization measures. Presidents of both parties have wholeheartedly embraced the Act’s theme that, as President Obama stated in 2010, “disability rights are civil rights too.”

Best for Young Athletes and Best for America

The key here is equal opportunity, not preferential treatment or special advantage. Both the Education Department directive and the New Jersey legislation specify, for example, that disability law is not offended when a player with disabilities tries out for a school sports team and fails to make the squad because other candidates appear more skillful or talented. To the maximum extent possible, however, leagues and teams should permit children with disabilities to participate in sports with other children if their parents approve, their abilities permit, and participation does not change the character of the game or compromise safety.  Worthwhile existing community programs, such as Little League’s Challenger Division, serve children whose conditions make integrated play inadvisable or impossible.

Reasonably accommodating disability in youth sports advances the educational mission because participation paves a two-way street.  The media regularly reports inspiring stories of children who overcome Down syndrome, missing limbs, and other disabilities to win their teammates’ acceptance, support and respect. Sports teaches children with disabilities, and these children teach everyone else through their perseverance and determination to overcome barriers that teammates and their families previously never thought much about.

According to Iowa Senator Tom Harkin, the IDEA signals that “the days of exclusion, segregation, and denial of educational opportunity [are] over in this country.” Last month’s New Jersey legislation similarly acknowledges that inclusion, rather than exclusion, is best for student-athletes, best for youth sports programs, and best for America.

 

[Sources: U.S. Dep’t of Education, Arne Duncan, We Must Provide Equal Opportunity in Sports to Students with Disabilities, http://www.ed.gov/blog/2013/01/we-must-provide-equal-opportunity-in-sports-to-students-with-disabilities/ (Jan. 25, 2013); N.J. Senate Bill No. 2079, Description and Text (June 20, 2014); Douglas E. Abrams, Bullying as a Disability in Public Elementary and Secondary Education,  Missouri Law Review, vol. 77, p. 781 (Symposium Issue 2012)]

COLLEGE SCHOLARSHIPS: Talking Recruiting in the World of Lacrosse

Everybody knows the sport of lacrosse has grown dramatically in the last 15 years. Up until recently, the sport was something of a regional novelty, played primarily in the Eastern states, and especially by colleges such as Syracuse, Johns Hopkins, Maryland, and other schools in that region.

But then something happened and the sport took off. And in interviewing Brian Holman, a three-time All-American goalie at Johns Hopkins in his own playing career and now the highly-respected goalie coach at the Univ of North Carolina, he felt that those kids who play lacrosse tend to develop a kind of spiritual bond or affiliation not only with their teammates but also with the game itself.

I have seen that kind of pure love happen in other sports, most notably ice hockey. Kids who grow up playing that sport also seem to develop a lifelong fondness for it that seems to transcend other “love affairs” with, say, baseball or basketball. It’s very hard to pinpoint, or define, but that passion is there.

In any event, lacrosse has now grown to become a major intercollegiate sport all over the country. Programs are developing rapidly from coast to coast, even to the point where Coach Holman acknowledged that some of the newer regions are having some trouble getting enough quality coaching or game officiating at the younger levels simply because it’s still so new. “But that’s changing,” Holman observed, “and it’s all to the good.”

In terms of college recruiting, as the number of top college programs continue to grow, the competition for scholarships is also becoming more competitive. There may have been a time when a HS lacrosse player could easily obtain a college scholarship simply because there were fewer numbers, but those days are long gone. In addition to hundreds of HS lacrosse programs now, there are all sorts of club, or travel, programs that provide a real showcase of aspiring lacrosse players.

Like other sports, lacrosse travel team can cost a family thousands of dollars each year, and these programs often run from the fall through winter and through the HS lacrosse program in the spring and right into the summer. Holman acknowledged that these club teams can be very expensive, and that UNC looks for top players, regardless of whether they played travel or just HS lacrosse. Each year, he told me, they have open tryouts and each year they routinely have at least one walk-on make their team at UNC.

As the UNC goalie coach, Holman told me that when he evaluates potential college goalies, he looks for their presence in the net, how they direct their defensive players, and of course, it’s essential that they have quick, quick hands and are highly athletic. That’s the key.

Beyond that, Coach Holman continues to be quite optimistic about the future of the sport. Remember, he told me, that even though there is a fledgling Major League Lacrosse program, nobody really turns pro in the sport in order to make money. Again, it’s more about the pure love for the game.

As noted earlier, that’s a very special part of lacrosse’s tradition, and one worth noting. Both of my daughters played lacrosse in rec programs and right through HS, and to this day, they still go out with their lacrosse sticks and have a coach.

As a sports parent, that’s nice to see.

 

ABUSIVE SPORTS PARENTS: The Worst Things That Parents (and Coaches) Say to Young Athletes

“For crying out loud! How could you miss that easy pop-up? You’re a real embarrassment out there!”

“How come you’re not as good as your older brother?”

“When I was your age, I could make that play in my sleep!”

Sadly, you get the idea. I don’t know you about you, but over the years, invariably when I watch a youth league game, or travel team game, or even HS kids play, I invariably find myself cringing when I hear a loud-mouthed coach or parent yell out something totally inappropriate to the youngsters.

At first, I feel so sorry for the kid – I’m sure he or she wants to crawl under a rock to get away from the humiliating taunts of a coach or parent. I mean, how could a grown-up be so cruel as to scream at a kid? And then I begin to realize that often times, this kind of verbal abuse has nothing to do with the youngster, but rather everything to do with the parent/coach trying to save their own face; that is, trying to show all the others in attendance that it’s not his fault that the kid made an error or mistake.

I always ask: “Just show some sensitivity to the young athlete. Clearly kids make mistakes, errors, and miscues – that’s entirely part of the process of learning and mastering the sport. What good does it do for you, as an adult, to highlight and draw attention to their error?”

In short, if there is one thing I would ask parents and coaches to change, it would be to try and think first before you open your mouth. That is, kids already know when they have made a mistake – they really don’t need you to point it out to them. Secondly, this is the exact right time to offer encouragement and exhibit patience. The kid is looking for any support they can find: wouldn’t it be nice if the coach or the parent stepped up and offered that – instead of leading the charge to humiliate the poor kid.

And yet, as several callers pointed out on my show this AM – this kind of verbal abuse happens all the time and all over the country. What can we do to get the coaches and parents to think ahead of the consequences of their words?

Just yesterday, I was watching the Yankees against the Minnesota Twins in an extra-inning game tied 1-1. In the bottom of the 11th inning, the New York catcher Francisco Cervelli – who ironically had driven in the only run for the Yankees – make a throw that sailed widely over the first baseman, and as a result the winning run scored for Minnesota. Game over. New York loses on that error.

The camera immediately focused on Yankees’ manager Joe Girardi. Did he scream and yell at Cervelli? Did go through a series of painful gestures to show his displeasure?

No, Girardi simply packed up his notes from the game, and quietly headed back down the runway from the dugout to the clubhouse. Was he upset? Of course. Did he show it? No.

Did Cervelli feel bad? Of course. After all, he just lost the game for himself and his teammates.

Chances are that Girardi, in a quiet moment later on, probably spoke to Cervelli in private and explained to him why it was a poor throw to have attempted. But again, that was not done in public. And I doubt there was any screaming from Joe.

My question is this: if Cervelli had been 12 years old and was playing in a LL game, do you think his coach would have handled his poor throw in the same manner as Girardi?

Again, parents and coaches…if you want to be the best instructor and motivator to your players, always think first before you say or anything. That “think first” approach will go a long ways to getting rid of the verbal abuse we inflict on our kids.

ACADEMICS V. ATHLETICS: What Should Receive Top Priority?

 

 

When the State High School Athletic Association Spurns Academics

By Doug Abrams

 

Every so often, a news story appears about some state legislature considering a bill so commonsensical that we wonder why the lawmakers even spend their time on it. Bills proclaiming “State Tulip Week,” or declaring the turnip as the “Official State Vegetable,” come to mind.

If you didn’t know better, you would think that Rep. John W. Scibak introduced a time waster in the Massachusetts House of Representatives on June 20. Rep. Scibak’s bill would prohibit the Massachusetts Interscholastic Athletic Association (MIAA), which oversees high school sports, from scheduling games and other competitions on mornings when the SAT (Scholastic Aptitude Test) or the ACT examination is administered to high school students nationwide.

The bill’s seriousness rises above tulip weeks or state vegetables, but scheduling interscholastic games to assure full, unfettered access to college entrance examinations should be a no-brainer, even without legislation. The bill is really about respecting students’ academic well being, and it attracted 62 co-sponsors in its first four hours.

The bill been assigned to the Joint Committee on Education, which reportedly will hold public hearings on it this month. Unless the MIAA commits to putting the SAT and other college entrance examinations first, the bill deserves to sail through the state legislature with bipartisan support. High school sports are “extracurricular” activities; the curriculum comes first.

 “For Academic Reasons”

Controversy arose a few days before Rep. Scibak introduced his bill, when the MIAA scheduled a rained-out Division I North semifinal baseball game for Saturday morning, June 7 at 10:00, smack in the middle of the SAT’s nationwide administration.  The semifinal pitted Chelmsford High and Methuen High, whose rosters included ten players (seven from Chelmsford and three from Methuen) who had signed up to take the SAT that morning. Most or all were juniors taking the exam for the first time as they prepared for their senior year.

Superintendents, principals and coaches at both schools requested the MIAA to move the semifinal game for a few hours, or a day or so, because fields were available and, as Methuen’s athletic director put it, “we are all here for academic reasons.”

When the MIAA refused the request, both high schools allowed individual players to choose between their academic futures and the playoff game that they had earned. It was a choice that no teen should have to make. Methuen’s coach said that he urged his juniors to take the SAT, and the two schools considered boycotting the game and taking forfeits.

The teams ultimately played in Lowell on Saturday morning with both rosters depleted, Chelmsford by four players and Methuen by three. But that is not all because college entrance examinations are rigorous intellectual exercises that demand a student’s undivided attention. We can only surmise whether the MIAA’s intransigence may have compromised the futures of test takers who, having wrestled with dual loyalties to academics and their teams, underperformed as their minds drifted to the playoff game a few miles down the road.

Two other high school teams, Turners Falls and Hopkins Academy, faced the same “SAT or baseball” conflict that Saturday morning because the MIAA scheduled them to play their WMass Division IV championship game at 10:30, also smack in the middle of the SAT. All affected players chose the game over the exam. For years, the MIAA evidently has also forced athletes in other sports to grapple with similar scheduling conflicts that should not arise in the first place.

Present Test-Taking and Future Effect

College entrance examinations are serious business. By assuming a significant role in the college and university admissions process, they can affect high school students for the rest of their lives. The SAT’s June administration is critical for juniors because the exam and its subject exams will not be administered again until October.

With the June scores, juniors and their families can most efficiently plan summer visits to schools that draw their interest, including ones some distance from home. Sitting for the SAT in June also enables juniors to take the exam a second time in October if they want to try to bolster their score. Knowing that they can retake before the application season heats up in the autumn may reduce tension on some June test takers, and thus improve their performance.

Receiving the ultimate SAT scores as early as possible enables students to spend maximum time applying to colleges and universities that offer not only suitable academic programs, but also realistic prospects of admission and possibly financial aid. Students who apply to colleges and universities with a rolling admissions process, or who apply early decision or early action, may receive earlier acceptance than students who sit for the exam for the first time in October and then contemplate a retake.

“An Extension of the Classroom”

The MIAA embarrasses public education in Massachusetts and sullies its own mission statement when it forces teens to choose between the classroom and the locker room. The MIAA website says that “[t]he goal of interscholastic athletics is to give young people the opportunity to expand their educational horizons” through “commitment to the educational nature of interscholastic athletics.” Interscholastic sports “in an educational perspective,” adds the MIAA, “is an extension of the classroom.”

We teach young athletes that “there is no ‘I’ in ‘TEAM.’”  There is, however, an “I” in “MIAA.” The “I” stands for “interscholastic.” As in “scholastic.” Now that the state association has shown that it does not take its own mission statement seriously, vindicating the core purposes of public education is a major reason why legislators hold their official positions.

Dropping the Ball

P.S.  Bravo to the Chelmsford and Methuen players, who, according to the Boston Globe, “honored their missing teammates by laying out their jerseys on the field during the national anthem.” High school sports fulfills its mission best when the role models are the adults and not the players, but the adults running the MIAA committed an error by dropping the ball.

With their on-field display, players on both teams sent an unmistakable message about team unity, respect for their absent teammates, and the proper roles of academics and sports. I hope that younger kids in their communities were watching. I even hope that the MIAA elders were watching because they could learn plenty from the teens. The players acted silently, but with dignity and force that set the standard high, where it belongs.

[Sources: Douglas Moser, Proposed Bill Would Avoid Playoffs vs. SATs, Gloucester (Mass.) Daily Times, June 12, 2014; Joseph Saade, MIAA Won’t Budge on SATs: Game Will Be Played, Boston Globe, June 7, 2014; Joseph Saade, Chelmsford Tops Methuen in Game Clouded By SAT Controversy, Boston Globe, June 8, 2014; MIAA, Sportsmanship, http://www.miaa.net/contentm/easy_pages/view.php?sid=38&page_id=28 ]