Sanctioning issues creating turmoil
in big invitational meets

A Race with No Winners

[The first in a series on sanctioning and its impact on the high school athletes the rules are intended to help.
Also see: and now a farce and one thing is consistent - the inconsistencies. ]

by Don Rich, publisher of

In New York, the NYSPHSAA (New York State Public High School Athletic
Association) is the final word. Yet, thanks to renewed and apparently
expanding enforcement of existing regulations, it's turning out they
also have influence in a lot of other states.

The issue is simply this: In any contest involving four or more schools
- inside or outside of NY, in any sport - the NYSPHSAA will not permit
its member schools to compete against schools which are not members of,
or approved by their state's scholastic athletic association. Those
that do will lose eligibility for the remainder of the season. That's a
big hammer. And the kids are the nails.

The issue first appeared in April when the Penn Relays was forced to do
some last minute reseeding to get the 'non sanctioned' schools into
other heats to avoid competing against teams from New York.

The issue then reappeared at the Manhattan Invitational in October when
an athlete from New Jersey was told he could not compete because his
school was not sanctioned by the state association. A court injunction
solved his problem. But just his.

Jump ahead to this indoor season, and the issue is again back in the
forefront. And if statements from one of the assistant executive
directors of the New York association are any indication, it isn't
going away, and in all likelihood, will continue to spread.

It's all about standards.

How is New York different from Pennsylvania in the sanctioning
department? Well, in New York, the NYSPHSAA is the ultimate arbitrator
for all the state's high school associations. In PA, the PIAA is not.
New York's other three associations, the PSAL (New York Public
Schools), CHSAA (Catholic High Schools), and the NYSAISAA (Independent
Schools), have all agreed to give the larger association responsibility
and authority for sanctioning. Therefore, all member schools in each
association are automatically cleared for competition - in every sport
- because they agree to the same eligibility standards.

So how's it work? Before any in-season, sanctioned meet can be held
with New York teams, meet management must first get approval of all the
teams that have been invited. For the December 18th Bishop Loughlin
Games, that meant that a list was submitted to the National Federation
of State High School Associations (NFHS), the governing body for high
school athletics rules. When the list came back, several schools had a
problem. A big one. They wouldn't be permitted to participate.

Getting creative on 168th Street.

Those familiar with what happened on December 18th at the Loughlin
Games relate a frantic, yet determined effort during the week prior to
the event by meet management to find a way for the targeted schools to
participate. The solution, while not ideal, at least placed the
athletes on the track. Those from schools not sanctioned by their state
associations would run in their own heats. That meant West Catholic,
Archbishop Carroll, both of the Philadelphia Catholic League; Friends
Central of the PA Inter-Academic League; and Towson Catholic and
DeMatha Catholic, both of Maryland, could race, but not against New
York schools. The meet within a meet was tabbed the 168th Street

From a purely competitive standpoint, the arrangement cost several
athletes shots at their biggest challengers. (See Ed Grant's report on
Devon Williams of Towson Catholic) And ask Latavia Thomas of West Catholic
if she missed racing against the Bellport NY runner.

But the enforcement of this rule has ramifications far beyond a
mid-December meet at the Armory. It could very well be felt through the
rest of the indoor season, into outdoor, and beyond.

The level playing field.

To understand the rule's purpose, we asked NYSPHSAA Assistant Executive
Director Walton Eaton for an explanation. Several times during a
15-minute conversation, Eaton stated in essentially the same language,
that the purpose was to ensure that all participating schools in a meet
were following similar standards for age, health and safety
regulations. "We want to maintain a level playing field and avoid
exploitation of our athletes."

That fits cleanly with the NFHS mission to "enhance the educational
experiences of high school students and reduce risks of their

But Ron Lopresti, president of the Pennsylvania Track & Field Coaches
Association, which sponsors and runs the indoor season in the state,
doesn't see the regulation as beneficial to the exact people it's
purported to help. "...this type of regulation does nothing to help our
sport.  It is just another example of how regulations can sometimes
hinder, not aid competition. Now schools like West Catholic with
national stars Nicole Leach and Latavia Thomas will be denied
opportunities to run against the best in New York. We feel that New York has made a
mistake in not thinking out their decision."

And he's not alone. Archbishop Prendergast coach Anthony Carr and his
school are next in the sights of the rule. He had planned to take his
team to the Holiday Classic on December 28th, as did Cardinal O'Hara.
Both decided that since they were basically only permitted to race
against themselves, it really wasn't worth the trip. "It's a real
shame," Carr says. "Athletes need the opportunity to compete at a high
level, and now the athletes are being unfairly punished."

Carr also sees the rest of the season - the out-of-state season - in
jeopardy, as well. "We thought about going to Yale in three weeks, but
there are a lot of New York teams there. That's not something you can
plan in a day or two."

Carr says the meet management of the Holiday Classic is entirely
sympathetic. "They told us to call the PIAA and New York. The PIAA told
us as far as they knew, they were not allowed to sanction non-PIAA
members. When we called the New York association, they told us the rule
was clear."

Carr's frustration is based on what he sees as the PCL's strongest
case. "We follow PIAA guidelines."

Penn Relays added juggling in 2004.

The whole thing will play out over the coming weeks and months, both in
state association headquarters, and maybe the courts. But the Penn
Relays, the granddaddy of them all, is facing another year of juggling
teams, all while pulling off the most complex of events with the single
purpose of offering great competition.

Penn Relays Carnival Director Dave Johnson believes there are several
factors at work that may be driving the sudden enforcement of the rules
that have been on the books for a long time. First, he thinks there are
challenges inherent with certifying athletes and schools who come from
the increasing homeschooled and charter school populations. "What tips
the iceberg is everything that went on with Labron James," (the now-NBA
star who benefited from endless hype and more while still in high
school). And Johnson cites litigation of two decades ago that stopped
high school athletic governing bodies from writing rules to address a
problem in just one sport, which means the rules must apply to all.
"Close the loophole and track often gets caught in that nightmare."

It's a nightmare that is appearing more and more because of the
increased enforcement. Eaton, the NYSPHSAA executive, says his state is
far from alone in this effort. "What is making it difficult is that
other states are becoming more like New York. Some of the loose
(regulation enforcement) states are trying to increase the level of
awareness and trying to enforce. It's always been there, but was just a
matter of enforcement."

Let the games begin.

Athletes, schools and leagues have begun doing their homework. Do they
turn to litigation? Is there something their state association can do?
Do they simply accept it and move on?

For the athletes, avoiding the problem is the short-term solution. They
can compete in non-NFHS events. Those include most college-sponsored
meets where athletes run unattached. The MAC (Metropolitan Athletics
Congress) meets are all non-sanctioned events, as are the Nike Indoor
Championships and the National Scholastic Indoor Championships in
mid-March, which are out of season.

Archbishop Prendergast coach Carr is one of those who is scrambling to
find answers. He'll definitely continue his conversations with the PIAA
after the holidays. "And we'll talk with our AD's and league officials.
This isn't just about track. It's affecting all sports."

It's about equitable opportunities.

Maybe the NFHS will find an answer in their own mission statement:
"The NFHS will promote participation and sportsmanship to develop good
citizens through interscholastic activities which provide equitable

Yet those simply hoping that the renewed enforcement goes back into
hibernation for the winter, spring and beyond, will probably be
disappointed. Eaton confirmed as much: "It's likely to continue for
forever, for every sport and season."

And that's likely to mean a lot more races with no real winners.

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