For decades, high school sports have been the gateway to college for many American students. An estimated $1.2 billion in athletic scholarships are awarded annually by U.S. colleges and universities — 180,000 scholarships in 34 sports. Last year alone, the National Federation of State High School Associations reported 7.5 million participants in America's high school sports programs, with Nevada reporting an estimated 41,000 participants in its programs.
With interest this intense, the stakes for Nevada public schools are high — and little wonder the state established the Nevada Interscholastic Athletic Association. Its job: to regulate and oversee high school athletics in the Silver State's public schools. Or, in the words of Paul Anderson, NIAA general counsel: "It is the role of the NIAA to level the playing field."
Just whom, however, is the NIAA leveling the playing field for?
Among Nevada's regulators, administrators and coaches — say sources involved in high school athletics — an "old guard" attitude persists that only students who attend a school's campus should be allowed to participate in that school's sports programs.
This attitude, however, explicitly conflicts with state laws and regulations regarding athletic participation. Those rules recognize that every student does not attend the traditional public school zoned for his or her neighborhood. Students also attend charter schools, technical schools, virtual high schools and alternative or credit retrieval schools.
And under Silver State regulations, all of them can participate in high school sports. In fact, even homeschooled students can participate in high school sports programs at their neighborhood school.
The one exception, apparently, has been any student solely attending the Clark County School District's alternative school, the Academy for Individualized Study, during the reign of Clark County School District Athletic Director Ray Mathis, who is also the president of the NIAA control board.
The Academy is a diploma-granting alternative school approved by the Nevada Department of Education. It complies with the same education, testing and graduation standards as every other school in the state. Moreover, in 2004 the NIAA officially adopted state regulations to allow alternative-school students to participate in high school athletics.
Yet, Alexandra Katz, who attended the Academy last semester, was denied athletic eligibility when she sought to join her neighborhood school's bowling team.
"Students who are enrolled in the AIS program and not in their zoned comprehensive high school," said Mathis in a December ruling, "are not and have never been eligible to participate in athletics."
But Anita Wilbur, the Academy's principal, says her students have always participated in athletics.
"I would just call Bill Garis and my students would … get permission from their zoned-school principal, complete an athletic packet, compete in try-outs, and provide weekly progress reports, just like every other student," said Wilbur. Garis was CCSD Athletic Director before Mathis.
Supporting Wilbur's claim is the NIAA's own Girl's 2009 Bowling Record Book, which recognizes Taelor McKenrick for an eighth-place all-time ranking of highest match/series score (682) in a regular- or post-season game (2006). McKenrick achieved the feat while solely enrolled at AIS and playing for Silverado High School, her zoned comprehensive high school.
Mathis also declares that his "decision was based on fair and impartial regulations that ensure a level playing field for all." He asserts Katz is ineligible because, "Students must be enrolled in at least two (2) units of credits and regularly attend school… In addition, NIAA regulations require passing grades for each course during the season and a periodic review of the pupil's progress in each course every three (3) weeks. Students enrolled in the AIS program are not required to be enrolled in all their courses at the same time. Therefore, comprehensive schools are unable to conduct a three-week progress check for all required courses."
Katz, however, met the class-credit requirements that Mathis cites. Not only was she simultaneously enrolled in two-and-one-half unit credits, she also — just to quell any concerns — enrolled in yet another class. And contrary to Mathis' claim that students must "regularly attend school," the NIAA admits that Virtual High School students, who participate in their neighborhood school's athletics, do not regularly attend school. As for progress checks, Academy students take weekly exams on campus and have always complied with progress-report requirements.
Katz contested Mathis' ruling, but then was shocked to learn, from NIAA Executive Director Eddie Bonine, that she was now declared ineligible because she did not get written approval from the Academy principal, her neighborhood school principal and the CCSD administrator, in accordance with regulation NAC 386.791(2).
In a December interview, NIAA counsel Paul Anderson said that because the Academy is an alternative school under Nevada law, its students must follow regulations requiring that they get such written approvals. Also, he said, Katz — just as magnet students must — would have to meet other eligibility requirements, including those for credit, grades and progress reports.
Anderson also gave his view of the thinking behind the regulations, which the NIAA itself wrote, as the state-authorized agency. His comments suggest that NIAA figures don't really subscribe to the thinking embodied in current law allowing equal participation by students not attending traditional schools:
The reason we have regulations like that is to protect kids who are attending that school or who live in that zone who have attended that school and complied with all the rules and want to compete on the same team that she does. Because they are actually students of that school, that's what our rules focus on, is protecting those students. That's what all our rules focus on in terms of eligibility and transfers and that sort of thing. So, it's not just the kid who is rendered ineligible, it's the kid who would be displaced if the ineligible kid is allowed to play. That's the underlying policy of a lot of our rules. (Emphasis added.)
Although the NIAA had never enforced this alternative-school requirement on the Academy in the past, Katz nevertheless set about gathering the required approval letters.
Initially, Coronado High School Principal Lee Koelliker — who himself sits as the NIAA control board member for Region IV — refused to sign an approval letter for Katz, despite having supported her participation before Mathis issued his denial. Eventually, however, Koelliker did approve. And naturally, Wilbur immediately provided approval. That left only the approval from the CCSD administrator.
Continuing his opposition, CCSD Athletic Director Mathis did not approve. However, someone higher in the district did: CCSD Deputy Superintendent Dr. Lauren Kohut-Rost interceded on behalf of Katz, providing the needed approval letter.
Faced with the procured letters, the NIAA's Bonine — after two months of contentious negotiations — finally granted Katz conditional eligibility. Alexandra, he said, would have to enroll at her zoned school of attendance (Coronado) at the beginning of the 2009-10 second semester "as either a fulltime Coronado High School student or a concurrently enrolled student between Coronado High School and AIS…"
In his decision, Bonine went on to declare that "this is a ‘one time only authorization' and no other student solely enrolled exclusively in A.I.S. will be afforded athletic eligibility until the following criteria is met…"
Bonine's "one-time only" and conditional authorization, however, still did not even afford Katz eligibility as a solely enrolled Academy student.
Faced with more "old guard" runaround and evasion, Katz — when Coronado subsequently refused to enroll her until she withdrew from the Academy — finally left the Academy to join Coronado's girls bowling team.
Katz ended the season as Coronado's Most Valuable Player (MVP), with the highest bowler average. Statewide, she finished third in the MVP Tournament. However, Alexandra Katz's dream of attending Vanderbilt University — which had been eyeing her as a scholarship athlete — went unrealized. The school's interest in her had waned while she missed much of the bowling season and the NIAA would not allow her, as an Academy student, to join the Coronado team.
Justifying Bonine's decision, Anderson now says that regulation NAC 386.791(2) — the requirements of which the NIAA demanded she fulfill — does not accord eligibility to students who fulfill its terms. It only, he says, allows students to ask for it. Anderson also argues that Katz is a "precedent case" and the regulations were adopted long ago, "before CCSD starting implementing all these programs." In actuality, when the NIAA enacted the regulations in question in 2004, CCSD had already established the Academy.
Fundamentally, the NIAA attitude is bizarre. Its attorney and director argue, in effect, that the school-choice reforms changing the face of Nevada public education — charter schools, magnet programs, independent education, virtual schooling, homeschooling, etc. — should all cease so that the authoritarian mindset reigning in the organization is not perturbed.
Rather than "level the playing field," this organization, it is clear, would rather level talented kids who want to play on it.
Karen Gray is an education researcher at the Nevada Policy Research Institute. For more visit http://npri.org/.