OSAA should take steps to level playing field for kids

In last week’s edition we reported how the Oregon School Activities Association is in the process of redistricting its member schools.

For Sweet Home, that likely means re-acquainting ourselves with teams we’ve competed against in the past – possibly even well in the past.

The OSAA does this every four years and, since it has absolute power over what happens in the state’s high school sports, the decision of the Classification and Redistricting Committee members is pretty much final.

Before we go any further, let’s talk about why we should care – particularly those of us who are not sports fans.

While our society’s attention to sports might appear excessive, athletics – as well as other extracurricular and artistic skills fostered in our schools – have value to our community. There is no question that activity trumps sloth every time in terms of physical and mental health, learning skills, discipline and responsibility. Well-coached sports teach these better than almost anything else available to our children, especially in situations where kids don’t get the support and training they need.

One more important point is how critical activities such as sports can be for communities, like Sweet Home, with a high level of poverty, to give young people a chance to learn to be active, responsible and productive.

We didn’t plan it this way, but an excellent example of what we’ve just said is former Sweet Home athlete Skyler Bascom, whose story is reported on page 13 of today’s edition, who has risen above averse circumstances to become a responsible, successful citizen who is already finding ways to give back to his community.

In the United States, sports are primarily school-based. Without going into pros and cons of that arrangement, we all support athletics via taxes that go to public schools. In doing so, we’re investing in the next generation.

Perhaps just as importantly, sports, particularly in a smaller community like Sweet Home, bring people together and help maintain that community. Athletics provide a common, multi-generational gathering point, and they foster community identity. Those are reasons why we should care.

Sweet Home High School’s size and location has been a factor in our being bounced around, from league to league, every so often. We’ve played with a lot of people over the years, and it looks like things are going to change again.

OSAA’s latest proposal, which will be debated through the remainder of this school year and finalized next fall for implementation in 2018, has the Huskies grouped again with former opponents from previous leagues in the Mid-Valley. The rub for public schools is that Marist, a private school located in Eugene, which draws from a large population, might be back in that mix.

Due primarily to the factors of privilege and population, Marist has an advantage beyond its student body size – to be blunt – in that its athletes tend to perform better than kids who don’t have the option of playing club sports and the parental support system that usually goes along with that.

It should come as no surprise that Marist has dominated competition with equal-sized schools and will continue to if it moves back down from the 5A division, where the Spartans haven’t been as successful.

Another proposed alternative, for Sweet Home to compete in a league with a group of schools currently in the 5A Division, including Lebanon, Dallas and the Corvallis schools, along with current 4A member Newport, might be attractive from a rivalry standpoint, but the key question would have been whether the Huskies, with a significantly smaller student body than any of those schools except Newport, could actually compete in most sports. More on that in a moment.

Sports administration is a complex and problematic enterprise, simply because it involves competition. People get emotional and that competitive spirit occasionally manifests itself in extreme and embarrassing behavior at competitions. Exercises such as redistricting can also be controversial because, inevitably, someone will not get what they want.

One of the biggest problems the Classification and Redistricting Committee has to grapple with is competition. What do they do with schools that just can’t win games?

Marist is an example of the other extreme, but there are Taft and La Pine, both schools that Sweet Home has competed against in the last 10 years in various leagues, which have dropped down to the 3A division partly because they literally were being blown off the court or the field in nearly every sport.

Being a perennial loser like that isn’t good for anybody.

That’s the reasoning behind another proposal that’s hovering there for the OSAA: allowing schools to play down if they can’t field competitive teams.

Speaking very frankly, there are a lot of positives in this proposal, though we think it might be better suited to individual teams.

One example might be Sweet Home’s girls basketball program.

Basketball doesn’t have the culture and feeder system here that it enjoys in rival communities. Other than Northside Park, there isn’t even a public court – outside of a few grade school yards in town, which often are locked to the public. Sweet Home High School and Sweet Home Junior High don’t even have outside baskets, which are standard schoolyard equipment in many other communities.

The result is that we don’t win, particularly in girls games, though current Coach Dave McNeil’s girls – a very young team – made steady improvements this year, right through their final (and best) game of the season.

Similarly, there’s not a lot of parity in Sky-Em League softball right now, as indicated by the scores in the Huskies’ recent games, reported on page 16.

Sweet Home is actually the largest Sky-Em school, so student body size isn’t the issue here.

But for a lot of schools size does matter.

Dufur, which won this year’s 1A state football championship, played league opponent Mitchell/Spray/Wheeler (that’s a team of three combined schools) last fall, but a better description would be the one used by the Central Oregonian newspaper: “annihilated.”

Dufur was up by 36 points early in the first quarter and got virtually no playing time for its starters, who have limited opportunity to compete against schools that can match up with them.

One estimate is that some 20 schools in Oregon haven’t been competitive in their current classification and might be interested in a move to a lower division.

So here’s a slight variant of the play-down suggestion.

OSAA should consider a mechanism whereby any team in any sport will automatically, or can petition to, move up or down in a specific sport in which it is either dominant or otherwise, rather than an entire league change, as Marist, Taft and LaPine, all former league opponents for the Huskies, have done.

In Great Britain, for instance, professional soccer leagues are organized similarly. At every level, at the end of the year a certain number of teams, usually two to three, move up to the next level and another two or three drop down, based on performance.

If you lose, you go down. If you win, you rise, and keep rising. A similar arrangement might benefit teams that need an opportunity to be competitive, as well as those that are too dominant. A 15-0 team is certainly a more positive experience than 0-15, but neither are really healthy on a continued basis.

Sure, there’s a valid argument for maintaining traditional league rivalries and all that, but OSAA swimming, wrestling and golf already do not compete within traditional league formats in district and state championship qualification processes. The team in swimming may not be the one everyone loves to hate in basketball, but they have their arch rivals too.

What is the purpose of high school sports?

Ultimately, we think, it should be to train young people to compete and deal with challenges in life, to work as a team, to learn to take direction and to process the ups and downs that come with playing sports – and in life.

Certainly, winning is the goal. But it’s also not to lose to the point of being abject.