Thursday, April 3, 2008

Is MHSAA Facing Final, Dying Days?

How did prep sports ever get so sideways in Michigan that stories of million-dollar lawsuits and judgments jumped off the professional sports pages, skipped past the college roundups and ran smack-dab into the high school vernacular?

By now most who follow high school sports know about the Michigan High School Athletic Association (MHSAA) being handed a $7.4 million bill Tuesday to cover legal fees absorbed by the victors in the gender-equity lawsuit the MHSAA ultimately lost. The MHSAA contested a lawsuit brought forth by an entity called Communities For Equity (CFE), a Grand Rapids-based group of mothers who felt their daughters were unfairly disadvantaged by Michigan's former fall girls' basketball / winter volleyball season schedule.

In public communication as it related to the lawsuit, MHSAA Executive Director Jack Roberts assured the public and private schools he represents, as well as the public served by the media outlets covering the legal battle, that the MHSAA was fighting this battle with an insurance-funded dollar as it related to legal fees. That much seems to be true. What insurance seemingly didn't cover was the legal fees for the plaintiff should the MHSAA lose. Tuesday District Judge Richard Alan Enslen awarded lawyers representing CFE with an award that could potentially devastate the MHSAA as we know it today.

The MHSAA's leadership fought a long but continuous losing battle, lasting more than 10 years, all the way to the United States Supreme Court, who ultimately rejected nearly every MHSAA argument and subsequent appeal, as did the lower courts below it. In delivering Tuesday's bad news to the MHSAA, Enslen also tacked on interest upon the initial $4.65 million award at 5.003%, instantly ballooning the bill to $7.4 million. For every single day the judgment goes unpaid, interest adds approximately $1,000 to the bill. The MHSAA issued a statement that it would have no comment for at least a week to 10 days.

Understandably, they're probably as shellshocked as the rest of us.

In the past few days, chat boards, blog sites and water coolers have been inundated with discussion about the latest chapter of this state's seemingly endless reality game, This Week's Biggest Loser in Michigan. As if Michigan's mortgage crisis, flagging job market, energy crunch and a state economy sieged by credit obligations wasn't enough, now school sports is in jeopardy? But the biggest loser in this crushing judgment isn't the leaders of the associated schools. It isn't taxpayers who fund public schools or those that pay tuition for the private institutions. It isn't officials or coaches, either.

It's our kids. The ones we turn the Friday night lights on for. The kids who sweat, toil and dream of achieving something noble and worthwhile. High school sports is about wearing a varsity jacket. Seeing your name in the paper on Saturday -- that's prep sports. It's a hug from your girlfriend or a pat on the back from your uncle after the game. High school sports was never intended to be about legal fees, bankruptcy discussions and squabbling over gym time.

The solvency and future of the MHSAA is unknown, but this much is clear: The MHSAA and it's constituency of public and private schools have some heavy questions to answer, both internally and to the public at large. Tenuous would best describe the relationship between Michigan's public schools and the tax dollars that fund them -- that relationship will certainly be strained further.

This million-dollar award could potentially change high school sports as we know it today. Will the games go on? Yes, but will there every be a carefree discussion as it relates to scholastic athletics? Nope. That innocence was crushed under the weight of a 10-year war that did nothing but move seasons around and potentially ruin a state association. Does anyone really think that a talented volleyball player doesn't get to play collegiately because she's from Michigan?

The possibility of a rudderless conglomerate of schools offering prep sports going straight to the top of the list of issues like pay-for-play, admission cost, liability for athletes and coaches, eligibility, travel limits, television, licensing, advertising, officiating fees, vendor contracts and facility issues, just to name a handful, is scary. Michigan's worries now include high school sports legislation and that's good for no one.

Our student-athletes deserve better.

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