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OPINION | MASTERSON ONLINE: Realign for equity

by Mike Masterson | February 6, 2021 at 8:43 a.m.

Since moving back to my hometown of Harrison in 2015, and being a former Harrison High School Golden Goblin, I've assumed the unabashed role of a homer.

We even bought blue-and-gold seat cushions and sweatshirts with the face of that ferocious Goblin caricature to make sure there was no confusion over where our loyalties lie for the school's 5A west football program (as if anyone else really cares).

In that respect, I'm by no means alone harboring the loyalties that exist in most smaller and midsized communities and their public schools across Arkansas.

Therein lies the thrust of today's column: Restoring fairness and equity (there's that word) in the Arkansas Activities Association's designated classes of competition between the 30 public and two private schools, particularly in the 5A football classification.

I'm also far from alone in the belief that this enduring bone of contention needs to be adequately and equitably resolved either by the AAA, or our Legislature. Frankly, I couldn't care less which of them makes the necessary correction.

And I surely can't fault the private schools for wanting to maintain their grip on perennial state championships. They are in fact very good high schools with excellent students and teachers, and everyone likes winning, right?

Yet, to me, to continue with the status quo in assigning conference designations is like ensuring the limited number of public schools continue to compete in athletics against the considerable advantages many community colleges would receive.

There's a demonstrated need, supported by facts and numbers, to reform the way things are when private high schools become perennial 5A state champions over their public counterparts. For me, the situation defies common sense.

Others are concerned about the situation, as evidenced by this letter I received the other day from Kelsey Bardwell, a prominent Harrison attorney who has done her homework. And who in the state, my friends, can argue a case better than a standout attorney armed with facts?

"Dear Mike, I am an Arkansas resident, mother, taxpayer, community member and Harrison Goblin fan/graduate. While I am an attorney, I am speaking for myself in this correspondence, although I know I am far from alone in my positions.

"House Bill 1097, to me, is a necessary last resort of demanding fairness in school athletics. This bill seeks to separate public and private conferences and playoffs. I am confident that once the legislators peel back the layers of how the AAA sets up conferences, primarily in football, they will see that the rules do not serve the majority of public-school athletes. These are the students who are educated with public funds for which the Legislature must account.

"Think about it, Mike. Why are there different divisions of competition to begin with? It must be to allow teams to play at their own level and skill that will both challenge and reward them for playing well.

[It's the same logic as having grade levels for schools. You would not put a kindergartener in a ninth-grade algebra class, for example.]

"Currently, enrollment numbers are the only factor for choosing divisions, with private schools getting a 'bump' to the next conference level. Wait. Why is there a private school 'bump?' It's obviously because the AAA acknowledges private schools have certain advantages that public schools don't enjoy.

"It's my position that this 'bump' is not enough to make up for those advantages. For one, private schools provide tuition and financial aid assistance to attract athletes to their schools. For example, Pulaski Academy reports to the AAA that it has given $3.4 million in financial aid to athletes over the last six years.

"The Little Rock Christian Academy reports it has given $1.9 million to athletes over the same period. Notably, LRCA reported to the AAA that it gave 63 athletes financial aid in grades seven-12 in 2020. Of those, only 15 financial aid awards were for girls, while 48 were for boys. Of those 48 recipients, 44 are on the football team.

"On the surface, this alone is evidence of alleged gender discrimination (and recruiting around the rules). The AAA seems to be just fine with it.

It is my understanding the AAA will only investigate tuition or financial aid violations if another member school provides evidence of a violation. Yet it should not be any school's duty to investigate another school's athletics. No one wants to ruin a student's chances of playing at a good school.

"But all member schools deserve to know the rules are being followed by everyone. Why collect the data if it is not investigated regularly? After all, part of the AAA's stated purpose is to 'promote an understanding that participation in interscholastic activities is a privilege accorded to those who meet the adopted criteria.'"

"Secondly, small towns in rural Arkansas (which make up the bulk of the AAA member schools) cannot draw from large population areas like Little Rock or metropolitan Northwest Arkansas. Under AAA rules, Little Rock-based private schools can draw student-athletes from a metropolitan area with a population of 750,000+ within a 25-mile radius.

"Harrison has a population of 13,000. If you go 25 miles from Harrison, you're in the woods, or in school districts that don't have football teams. It's not quite the same.

"In 2020, Shiloh Christian (from Springdale, with a population of over 500,000+ within 25 miles) won the 4A championship against Rivercrest (a town of 1,000 people) by 38 points. In 3A, Harding Academy (with a population of over 100,000 within a 25-mile radius) won the finals against McGehee (a town of fewer than 10,000 people) by 44 points.

"Public schools do not have a chance in these conferences. Again, the AAA seems to be just fine with it.

"Private schools in 3A, 4A and 5A have a disproportionately high number of football players in their student population as compared to public schools in the same conference. The average 5A public school has 18 percent of its male students on the football team. Upon information and belief, PA has 49 percent of their male enrollment on the football team.

"If Harrison's team had 49 percent of its male enrollment on the roster, there would be 156 players. This is just one example.

"The only two private schools in 5A have won 100 percent of the last seven consecutive state football championships. It's notable these wins were achieved by an average of more than 23 points. Since 2018, the winner of the PA and LRCA game decided who was crowned 5A state champion.

"Think about it, Mike. These same two teams winning all of the last seven consecutive championships? And the last three championship games were played between those same teams to the exclusion of undefeated public-school teams trying to compete. For the last 10 years, in 3A, 4A and 5A conferences, private schools have won 43 percent of the state championships. In 5A, that number is 70 percent.

"You cannot tell me that this is not evidence of recruiting around the rules to win. Maybe private schools are not breaking a specific AAA rule. Yet when considering the big picture, these results speak for themselves.

"Allowing such obvious inequity to continue is a failure of AAA to provide 'opportunities for all students to participate and compete in a variety of sports and activities at their own level of ability and interest' as the forward to its handbook states.

"I believe playing sports teaches life lessons. Admittedly, one of them is that life simply isn't fair.You must play smarter, work harder and be better to overcome things that may not seem fair. It's true!

"However, I also believe we should teach our kids to stand up when there is prolonged, systemic unfairness with no apparent will or effort to correct it. I mean, a year (maybe two) is no big deal. But seven straight years of LR-based private schools winning the state's championships? Sometimes by more than 30 points?

"The championship playoff that is primarily funded with public school dollars? And televised by AETN, also funded by public dollars? That's a red flag that must be acknowledged.

"It's insulting that Arkansas' public schools often are told to work harder to beat these teams. This is insulting. These boys are not afraid of hard work. Many players get up and feed chickens or work cattle before early football practice, or go to work at fast-food restaurants after summer two-a-days, just to afford their gas money and football equipment. Shouldn't they have a fair chance at a championship? Instead, there is a glass ceiling.

"And speaking of life lessons, shouldn't these private-school athletes be taught something other than easy wins? Life is not an easy win unless you have millions. Oh wait. They do. But money should not be a factor in public-school sports. HB1097 will certainly fix this problem."

By golly, there's a closing argument if I've ever heard one.

Now go out into the world and treat everyone you meet exactly like you want them to treat you.

Mike Masterson is a longtime Arkansas journalist, was editor of three Arkansas dailies and headed the master's journalism program at Ohio State University. Email him at mmasterson@arkansasonline.com.

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