Political game is on for MSHSAA

Friday, February 1, 2008

Of all the evils that state government can take on in an attempt to eradicate them, I don't think the Missouri State High School Activities Association should be high on the list.

But it sounds like some legislators would like to eliminate the state association as it currently exists and give the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education something else to worry about besides education.

Public enemy No. 1: MSHSAA.

We've had wars on drugs, wars on crime, wars on terror. Now underway: the war on MSHSAA.

Seriously, the state association gets a lot of grief from member schools and sports fans in Missouri for good reasons, including the geography in drawing up districts, the private-school multiplier and the football playoff format. Some of the concerns aren't even MSHSAA-initiated, but instead have been voted on by the member schools.

And those are minor issues compared to the one that has led to a bill introduced again this month and sponsored by Rep. Jane Cunningham, R-Chesterfield. The bill would not allow public schools to join an organization like MSHSAA unless the association has government oversight.

MSHSAA is being scrutinized by the state legislature because some member schools have gotten fed up with the handling of athletes' eligibility and penalties. Legislative hearings have produced the stories people have heard about for years about selective enforcement and the lack of due process.

Naylor superintendent Steve Cookson was one of the most outspoken critics last year, wondering why his school district was penalized after an investigation instigated by an individual's complaint when MSHSAA's policy requires complaints come from member schools.

Cookson also thought the enforcement was selective, and he filed complaints with MSHSAA about other school districts in the area -- Bell City and Leopold.

That followed the recent flap between Bell City and Scott County Central, in which officials with the latter believed they did not have due process while trying to contest allegations and appeal penalties imposed on its boys basketball program.

MSHSAA has problems, and the legislature rightfully has cast a spotlight into how it conducts investigations and enforces penalties.

Anytime you have an overwhelmed enforcement staff relying on self-investigation by the schools or reports from rival schools and an organization stripping athletes of the opportunity to compete -- and their ability to earn collegiate financial aid -- without an acceptable appeals process, you have the potential for problems.

But I don't believe the U.S. Department of Education is in any hurry to replace the NCAA.

And Missouri's legislators shouldn't rush to have DESE replace MSHSAA.

For all of its problems, MSHSAA does some things right in coordinating high school athletics and activities in Missouri.

In some areas, it could use assistance, and I believe former football coach and state Rep. Gayle Kingery, R-Poplar Bluff, offers a voice of reasonable compromise. He believes there should be a judicial appeals process to review eligibility rulings rather than the complete elimination of the organization.

MSHSAA also may want to consider investing members' dues in a more active and impartial investigatory body. In the case of Scott County Central, the panel conducting the initial investigation consisted of administrators from other schools.

That might be an example there already is enough politics involved in high school sports in Missouri.

Toby Carrig is editor of semoball.com

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