The WIAA says it hasn’t turned a blind eye to recruiting and other alleged violations in high-school sports. It just has no authority to investigate it, WIAA executive director Mike Colbrese says. But in these days of super teams and high-school free agency, that could change.
Washington had never seen anything like the 2016-17 Nathan Hale boys basketball team.
Brandon Roy famously took his first high-school coaching job at the school that hadn’t seen success in a generation and had gone 3-18 the previous season. But thanks to seven transfers, including the top high-school player in the nation in Michael Porter Jr., Hale became a team that fascinated fans across the nation.
Big changes could be coming to WIAA
On Sunday, the WIAA’s Executive Board voted unanimously to allow a group called the Governance Committee, which is in its second year working on ways to change the structure of the WIAA, to continue its mission.
Though no specifics have been decided, the group is working on several ideas that could shake up the state’s high-school-sports scene.
“Ultimately, it’s so we can be more responsive to our member schools and the kids participating,” said Tim Thomsen, who is the Sumner School District athletic director and a member of the Executive Board and Governance Comittee.
Among the ideas the group is considering:
• Bringing the state’s nine districts under WIAA control in an effort to bring more consistency.
• Getting rid of district tournaments as state qualifiers in favor of sectional tournaments that guarantee 50 percent of the state’s schools a spot in the postseason.
• Changing the state’s classification structure, possibly bringing a return to the classifications based on a fixed ladder (for example, Class 4A would be made only of schools with enrollments of 1,350 students and above) rather than each class be formed by percentage of schools in the state.
• Changing how big the field is for a state tournament based on how many schools are in the classification it serves.
• Create something that Thomsen called a “judicial branch,” possibly made up of people outside the WIAA, to provide oversight and would have the ability to do investigations.
The committee will spend the next three months fleshing out these ideas and will report to Executive Board on June 18.
But not everybody was happy for the Raiders.
There was plenty of outcry on social media and discussion in gyms from people making charges of illegal recruiting. Why else would so many great players congregate at such a downtrodden program, they’d ask? Could it really be just the draw of playing for Roy, a former NBA player? Clearly, this would have to be investigated, they’d demand.
The whole thing was finally put to rest when the investigation by the Washington Interscholastic Activities Association, the state’s governing body of high-school sports, showed …
Yeah, that didn’t happen. There was no investigation. There was nothing to satisfy those convinced of wrongdoing (and Roy and Nathan Hale have maintained there was nothing improper).
The WIAA would have you know it didn’t just turn a blind eye. It just has no authority to investigate it.
“We’re a member-driven organization,” WIAA executive director Mike Colbrese said. “Washington is a very grass-roots state. We believe in local control. The association is no different than that.”
In other words, the 410 high schools in Washington that make up the WIAA have not been given the authority to investigate schools that have seven new standout players on its basketball team.
So how does recruiting, or any other alleged violations, come to light? A school must report itself, or a school must report another school for breaking rules.
But in these days of super teams and high-school free agency, is it realistic to expect such a system to work? Is expecting a juggernaut program to admit it colors outside the lines no more than a quaint notion?
Understanding how the WIAA works is similar to taking a course in civics.
Remember learning about the three branches of government, the executive, legislative and judicial? The WIAA, which was founded in 1905, has a similar setup.
The legislative branch is called the Representative Assembly. This is a 53-person body made of mostly athletic directors from across the state. The rep assembly is responsible for voting on rule changes.
Next there’s the Executive Board, which is comprised of 13 members (usually athletic directors, principals or school superintendents) from around the state. The executive board can vote on rule changes if there’s an emergency, or if there’s not time for it to go through the normal process with the rep assembly.
The executive board also sets the sites and formats for state tournaments, sets the budget and the dates for each season. It’s also the final word on any appeals on classification and rule violations. The executive board is also the one branch of the WIAA with investigative powers.
The third branch is the WIAA staff itself, the 12 full-time (and one part-time) employees charged with interpreting state rules and running the state tournaments.
None of the branches has a vote in another branch.
To further our civics analogy, the WIAA functions as the federal government for Washington high-school sports. The nine districts across the state can be likened to state government, and the 48 leagues serve as city government. Leagues decide who qualifies for district tournaments and how, and districts decide the path to state. The WIAA decides how many get to state and the format to decide the champion.
Did your school’s football coach screw up and play a wide receiver that was academically ineligible? You report that infraction to the league. Disagree with how that league decided to punish your football team? You can appeal up the chain to the district and all the way up to the executive board.
So who is the United Nations in this analogy? That’s called the National Federation of High Schools, and it’s based in Indianapolis. The NFHS mostly sets the on-field rules for each sport, and the WIAA has adopted most of them. They have come up with their rules for gymnastics and use FIFA rules for soccer.
Here’s another thing you learned in civics class: How a bill becomes a law.
In the WIAA, new rules are called amendments because they amend the state rule book.
Amendments start with a proposal from a member school. Proposals must get the support of that school’s superintendent and four other schools before it can start being reviewed by the league and the district. The representative assembly votes on these amendments each April.
There’s a good chance that is the case. And the WIAA might become a different organization in response.
“I can tell you it’s becoming more and more of a discussion at a national level,” said Colbrese, who has been the WIAA’s executive director since 1993. “Do we need to become more like the NCAA?”
Time to investigate
The WIAA knows it needs to change how it enforces rules, particularly to curb recruiting.
“We recognize what’s happening,” assistant executive director John Miller said.
It’s also not alone in not having the tools to do much about it. Colbrese said just a handful of state associations have an investigative unit, similar to what the NCAA uses to police college sports.
The WIAA rule book gives the association staff no authority to decide if it should investigate one of its members. There’s no office of investigation at WIAA headquarters in Renton. An investigation can be requested, but there’s no mechanism for the WIAA staff to initiate one.
WIAA rules state that schools are responsible for reporting their violations to its league. Schools also can report that it thinks other schools have violated state rules provided it has some evidence.
The vast majority of the time, it’s a minor violation that’s reported such as an ineligible player playing in a game before it was realized there was an issue. Most of the time, the league handles it. For the 2016-17 school year, 190 violations were reported statewide for infractions from missing deadlines for a coach to sign up for coaching clinics to ineligible players.
Few major rule violations have been reported. The two biggest recruiting investigations over the past dozen years — the Chief Sealth girls basketball team and Bellevue football team, which have resulted in vacated state titles — have come after investigations from The Seattle Times uncovered rule breaking.
But there’s no reason that can’t change.
A school could propose that the WIAA create an investigative department. The Executive Board could even decide the WIAA needs one and vote accordingly.
But what’s happening might not be what you’re picturing, and it might not be something the WIAA can investigate. It’s rarely the sleazy coach handing envelopes of cash or keys to a sports car to that five-star linebacker from two towns over.
“What we’re finding, in many cases, it’s not the school or the coaches in the school,” Miller said. “It’s the third party that’s out there, coaching kids on the side.”
What more state associations see is that a group of parents will gather a group of players who are on the same AAU team or 7 on 7 football team and decide those kids should play together in high school. To, as Miller laments, chase the gold ball.
They’re also chasing scholarships, banking on the attention a championship team will bring more eyes from college coaches and recruiters.
The Washington Interscholastic Basketball Coaches Association put out a survey in 2014. Of the 206 boys basketball coaches that responded to it, 88 percent said they thought the majority of transfers in basketball weren’t genuine. Ninety percent felt the WIAA wasn’t doing an adequate job enforcing its rules on the matter.
“It’s the No. 1 issue in the state for high-school coaches,” said WIBCA executive director Nalin Sood, who coaches at Mountlake Terrace.
Sood also lays much of this at the feet of nonscholastic programs (such as AAU). He points out the demoralizing effect it has on coaches. If a coach knows the best he can do is a sixth-place finish at the district tournament, and probably not make it to state because the top five teams are loaded with transfers bound for the Pac-12, how long is that coach going to keep trying?
In an effort to curtail the influence on AAU programs and the like, the Executive Board proposed an amendment this year that would make a transfer sit out a year if he or she transfers to a school that has a player or a coach from his “nonschool athletic team” (AAU or the like).
Similar rules have been passed recently in other states, including Oregon. It will be voted on next month.
Transfer of power forwards
The WIAA has rules designed to thwart transfers, the lifeblood of recruiting. Those rules say a player must sit out a year (or at least play subvarsity) if they transfer to another school and participate in a sport they’ve played in the past 12 months (you can transfer and play a new sport without sitting out).
That is, unless that player can prove there’s a hardship for leaving the former school. And that hardship rule has become a controversial one.
Each of the nine WIAA districts has its own eligibility board, which the WIAA staff trains and meets with each year.
Assistant executive director Brian Smith said there’s a 70 percent approval rate for hardships.
“We certainly are an organization for participation,” Smith said. “However, we still have to meet the general guidelines to get on the field.”
The WIAA leans more toward erring on letting an ineligible player play than keeping an eligible player on the sideline. This is the organization that ended Bellevue football’s postseason ban early so as not to punish the current players who weren’t under the previous coaching staff that had been found recruiting.
“What we’ve told our committee is, ‘Your job is to ask the right questions and to try and find a hardship if you can,’ ” Miller said. “Their job isn’t to try and keep the kid ineligible.”
Parents often don’t understand the process, or what information is needed. So the committee is helpful. Hardships denied can be appealed all the way up to Colbrese.
Though the generous approval percentage leads to more participation, it can also lead to some unintended consequences.
“I hate to see loopholes are being found to create super teams. That’s where I have a problem,” said Scott Orness, who led Bainbridge to the state boys basketball title game in 2007. Orness stopped coaching at Bainbridge in large part because of the school’s decision to remain in the Metro League, which, especially in basketball, sees a large amount of transfers each year.
Orness, who started coaching at North Kitsap in Poulsbo in 2015, said that during his early days in the Metro League, his coaching staff would scout teams by watching tapes from the previous season. It became a frustrating exercise as the players would often be on different teams.
Other transfers can be explained simply by the fact that they moved. If an entire family — not just one parent and one athlete — moves into a different school district, a player is automatically eligible.
It’s certainly not hard to find a new house or apartment to rent. And that cost can seem minimal to a parent who thinks the move could result in a college scholarship.
Does the WIAA need oversight?
In the span of less than 12 months, two bills have been put to the state legislature seeking to add state oversight for the WIAA.
Both have come from state senator Michael Baumgartner, a Republican from Spokane. Bellevue Democrat Patty Kuderer co-sponsored the second bill.
The first bill, introduced in February 2017, sought to give the state legislature oversight over rules passed by the WIAA, which is a private organization. That bill never made it to the floor for a vote.
The most recent bill, submitted Jan. 11, would give the Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction oversight over rules and policies from the WIAA. It also demanded the return of the state basketball tournament to the 16-team format. That bill also has not made it to the floor for a vote.
“The public would have somebody who they voted for they could appeal to,” Baumgartner said before introducing the bill.
Baumgartner points out that the WIAA is a nonprofit but spends public money. The WIAA’s main source of revenue (and its biggest expenditure) is from state tournaments. It’s second-biggest revenue source ($625,000 in 2015-16, which was about 15 percent of its revenues) is from fees from member schools, most of them public schools.
“The basic American system of checks and balances and accountability that we bring to all forms of government is certainly appropriate for the WIAA,” Baumgartner said.
Colbrese believes the WIAA already has oversight.
“We believe that the oversight comes from the membership,” said Colbrese, emphasizing the bottom-up design of the association.
This isn’t the first time the WIAA and the state legislature have crossed paths.
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In 2012, the Knight Act softened how the WIAA handed out punishments. In short, the act states that the WIAA must punish adults, if possible, before student-athletes.
Before the act, the WIAA was black and white in how it handed out punishment. Even if a bench warmer was found to be ineligible, that game would be forfeited.
And the Knight Act also forced a change in the process, and film could be reviewed to see if the ineligible player gave a team a competitive advantage that merited a forfeit.
The WIAA is one of three state associations that allows such a process, said Colbrese, who is retiring after the 2018-19 school year.
“It makes more work, which is all right because it’s better for kids,” Smith said.
Which is what the WIAA wants you to know it’s all about. It cares first and foremost about the life lessons athletes learn from the sports they play.
“Realistically, we work for the kids on the C team, on the eighth-grade team, the seventh-grade team,” Smith said. “And I never want to lose that value that all of us experienced at one point. That we had a good coach in seventh grade that made me believe in myself. That taught me process, how to goal set and get to a better place.
“ … I know our staff feels the same.”
WIAA through the years
1905: Washington High School Athletic Association formed
1923: First state boys basketball tournament is held as Walla Walla beats Prosser 21-16 for title
1923: First state track and field meet is held; Wenatchee wins the first four meets
1925: Representative Assembly is formed and has 32 members
1936: Joins the National Federation of State Associations
1946: Junior high schools come under jurisdiction of the WHSAA
1946: State permanently split into two classifications
1958: Changes name to Washington Interscholasctic Activities Assocation as debate and music are added
1958: State split into three classifications
1969: State split into four classifications
1973: Baseball and boys soccer get state tournaments.
1973: First state football tournament is played in fall. Kentridge wins big-school tournament.
1974: First girls state basketball tournament held as Wapato beats Everett 36-28 for title
1980: Becomes a nonprofit, incorporated association
1985: Holds the nation’s first concurrent (boys and girls) basketball tournaments in one facility in Tacoma Dome
1987: Cheerleading becomes WIAA sanctioned activity, followed the next year by theater/drama and three years later by dance/drill
1997: New classification is added, making 4A the biggest.
1999: Girls bowling is added as a sport, the most recent sport added to WIAA
2004: B classification splits into 2B and 1B, giving state its current six-classification format
2004: First girls wrestling state invitational held alongside Mat Classic
2007: Becomes first state association to form policy for transgender athletes
2009: Lystadt Law passes, becoming first state to mandate youth sports concussion guidelines and education
2016: Basketball becomes first sport to have state tournament seeded based on RPI