KHSAA hopes to extend to lower levels

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By Brandon Mattingly

The Kentucky High School Athletic Association (KHSAA) recently made a move to begin regulating middle school athletics, and while not yet finalized, it’s a move that is long overdue.

The Kentucky Board of Education has approved the proposed regulation for a 21-member committee to oversee middle school athletics, with lawmakers still to hold a public meeting on the topic—likely in July—before the General Assembly’s Administrative Regulation Review Subcommittee and the Interim Joint Committee on Education perform a final review.

Middle school teams playing too many games per season and parents arranging for students to repeat a grade to gain an athletic advantage are among state-wide concerns that sparked the move.
According to a story in the Lexington Herald-Leader, a task force recommended in 1993 that the KHSAA expand to include middle school sports, but finances and staff size played roles in a change never taking place.

There were plenty of reasons for that committee recommending changes 20 years ago, and many were revisited by a similar task force last year. Some of the recommended changes include:

• Coaches—paid and unpaid—must be 21 years old and submit to criminal background checks and students must adhere to the same sports medicine policies as high school athletes.
• The committee formed to oversee middle school sports must provide the opportunity for nonprofit athletic groups, parents and others to provide input on sports, events and other issues.
• The committee must meet twice a year to review policies, as well as file a formal report annually with the Kentucky Board of Education.
• Beginning with the 2014-15 school year, middle school students repeating a grade for any reason would not be permitted to participate in athletics the following year.
• Districts would be required to set limits on preseason practices and how many games are played each season. Middle school limits would be required to be below those of high school students.
• Beginning in 2014-15, students below the seventh grade would not be permitted to participate at the high school level (students in the sixth grade or lower who had previously been named to their high school teams would be allowed to continue to play).

The first thing that many people will notice is the age restrictions that would come with these changes. According to the Herald-Leader, around 400 of the more than 65,000 student-athletes in Kentucky high schools are sixth-graders or younger, with most of those being golf, tennis or cross-country team members.

Last year’s task force listened to testimony and determined that elementary-aged students socializing with high schoolers in an athletic environment did not suit the younger students’ best interests. Recalling the nature of some of the locker room conversations in my high school days, I can see where they’re coming from. This won’t, however, be a change for all programs, as football, soccer and wrestling have had this rule in place for years.

The task force also heard testimony in regard to at least two middle school basketball teams that played 50 games, while high schools are held to a 30-game regular season schedule.

Understandably, parents will take issue with their child being excluded from athletics for one year after repeating a grade, but that’s been the rule at the high school level for years, and the attitude of some parents and coaches toward the athletic system has forced the KHSAA’s hand. There are unfortunately some who exploit the education system to gain an athletic advantage, and this suggested rule levels the playing field while also putting an emphasis on academics earlier for young athletes.

My only concern is with the KHSAA stating that a middle school student repeating a grade “for any reason” will be forced to sit out the following athletic year. While I can get behind eliminating athletic motives for repeating a grade and encouraging academic integrity, it’s unclear if outside factors (e.g. illness or serious injury) that result in missed class time or suffering grades will be taken into consideration, or how any type of appeals process might work.  Also not mentioned was whether seventh and eighth-grade students participating at the high school level would see any additional restrictions while playing for both schools.

Plenty of questions will arise during the current one-month public comment period, as well as during the upcoming public hearing. But the expansion of the KHSAA to include middle school athletics will be a major positive in the end. If the regulation is approved, middle school sports will be formally organized a way that they’ve never been in this state, and it will make for an even smoother transition to the high school level.

There will undoubtedly be unforeseen problems that arise with the new system, but it’s a system that the KHSAA has known is a necessity for at least two decades. If this proposal passes, there will be more regulation of middle school sports than we’ve seen before in this state, and that’s going to prove to be a very good thing in the long run.