Column: Competitive play in voluntary conferences at risk

Friday night high school football is a wonderful tradition for our students and community. Thousands of students and community members pack our stadiums to enjoy great football against long-standing rivals. The excitement is high, the competition is fierce, and after a hard fought loss you are disappointed. However, within minutes you are thinking about next year. “Next year will be our year.” The reason we can look to next year is the fact that the teams within our conference are evenly matched with each team having a chance to win; our kids are experiencing excellent competitive play.

Tom Heidemann
Tom Heidemann

The Minnesota State High School League is a non-profit organization that is the responsible authority under state law that manages football and other co-curricular activities. The high school league has created different classifications that group teams for competitive play. Groupings are based on two main factors (school size and location), which they believe guarantee fair opportunities for every student. Unfortunately, the data is clear for Class 6A football, it is not working and fair opportunity flies out the window. Up to this point in time we have experienced competitive play against our rivals in a voluntarily formed conference.

Today, unfortunately, competitive play created by voluntary conferences is at risk and our ability to play our long-standing rivals is at risk. How could that happen? Simply put, one powerful legislator with a football powerhouse in his backyard can snap his fingers, and the high school league jumps to attention and eliminates the voluntary forming of conferences, which has been a tradition for many decades. It has been replaced with forced district groupings based on a new policy that lacks real definition.

This January the high school league’s board of directors passed the district play policy, opposed by a large majority of schools, that prohibits the voluntary forming of conferences as we know it. Voluntary conferences are replaced with a “trust us” forced placement system that, by policy, has no grievance process – only sanctions if you disagree. Having met and talked to league personnel caught in the middle, I know them to be good, knowledgeable and fair individuals. But without specific, defined criteria, the process, which is cloaked in secrecy, is open to powerful politics. In the last few years this particular politic has favored the wealthiest and most privileged schools in the state.

An excellent story ran in the StarTribune last spring that pointed out in detail that high school athletics have increasingly come to be dominated by four high schools in the wealthy western suburbs. The story described a silent auction benefit for a baseball team that featured “a week’s vacation in Hawaii, a pheasant hunt, a cultured pearl necklace and a spa day donated by a Lexus dealership.” Attendees sipped wine in a lakeshore banquet room as they browsed the auction items and waited for a chef to carve the roast beef. By contrast, the story described the Anoka High School football team gathering for a pasta dinner provided by the booster club – spaghetti served on paper plates.

Money buys not only fancy events for team supporters, it also enables highly paid administrative positions for coaches, the best in facilities and equipment, artificial turf fields, specialized coaches and student athletes who have been groomed from childhood to be top athletes. They have participated in expensive off-seasons camps that advertise, “Learn from the best … current and former pro players and coaches.” Kids can participate in a general football camp or specialize at “Passing and Receiving Academy” or “Kicking, Punting and Long Snapping Camp.”

The best training that money can buy.

We care because our kids deserve competitive play. The win-loss data does not lie. School size is not the single most important factor that determines competitive play any longer. There are other factors like a community’s per capita income, the number of free and reduced lunch students, funding per student and student mobility all correlate to the strength and success of a high school football team.

We will watch this issue closely and are united in the belief that our kids are as important and are worthy of good representation as any other student. For now we must put our trust in the high school league and their vague criteria and hope that they will keep our rivalries intact and give our kids the competitive opportunities they deserve.

We will be asking our legislators to snap their fingers this session and force the high school league to look at the data and create a different class system that provides for competitive play that allows us all to say after a hard fought loss “next year is our year.”

Tom Heidemann is the chairperson of the Anoka-Hennepin School Board.

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