Nationals Good For High Schools?

January 29, 2015
By Abigail Funk

In the first year of the ESPN RISE National High School Invitational, only private schools competed for the mythical national title. But this year, public schools joined the party after the Florida High School Athletic Association (FHSAA) decided to permit its members to compete in the tournament if invited. The FHSAA's move, plus recent discussions by the NFHS, has many wondering if the tide is turning toward an official high school national championship.
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While detractors say national tournaments featuring high school teams go against the spirit of scholastic sports, FHSAA Executive Director Roger Dearing views the Invitational as an opportunity. "Number one, it was a way to promote high school athletics to a national audience," he says. "All of the games were broadcast on ESPN channels nationwide. Number two, it was a way to promote what we're doing with basketball here in Florida. And number three, with the Invitational being held in Washington, D.C., we felt it would be a wonderful educational experience for our student-athletes."

Two boys' teams and two girls' teams from Florida competed in the three-day tournament in early April. Dearing says the FHSAA asked tournament organizers to invite the same number of boys' and girls' squads so there would be no risk of a Title IX violation. The FHSAA also reserved the right to block teams from attending if a squad faced disciplinary action or officials felt the team would not represent the FHSAA in a positive way.

"All of our coaches who went said it was probably one of the best experiences they had ever had," Dearing says. "When we heard the testimony from the coaches, it was just unbelievable feedback. We felt that all around, it was a good experience for the teams involved."

But not everyone agrees that promoting high school athletics on a national scale is a good thing. Jack Roberts, Executive Director of the Michigan High School Athletic Association (MHSAA), is one who objects. He believes that holding a national championship in any sport allows an emphasis that is inappropriate in education-centered interscholastic athletics.

"In fact, I think we already push the envelope by holding state championships," he says. "They interfere with classroom instructional time and cost schools, communities, and fans money. We'd be smarter to scale back rather than place even more emphasis on sports in schools.

"If we want to add to existing conflicts with academic programs, recruiting scandals, budget problems, and commercial influences, national championships are a way to do that," Roberts continues. "But if we want to stop those problems from getting worse, we should keep national championships out of our programming altogether. That's Michigan's strong position, as it is in many other states."

Still, supporters say national tournaments are just the natural evolution of high school athletics. "People would be amazed at the tremendous level of competition in high school athletics now," Dearing says. "Some athletes and teams don't find a challenge unless they seek out national competition."

So far, the FHSAA plans to allow its invited teams to attend the ESPN RISE Invitational again next year. But no other state association has joined Florida in doing so--yet.

Meanwhile, the NFHS is considering creating its own national championships. "There were extensive discussions among a number of state association representatives at our winter meeting on the topic," former NFHS Executive Director Bob Kanaby says. "There are those who have expressed great interest and those who have said it's not the direction to go in, but right now the decision rests with our Board of Directors, who will continue to discuss the matter."

The ESPN RISE National High School Invitational also involved private schools from Maryland, Nevada, New Jersey, North Carolina, Virginia, and West Virginia. The teams were chosen based on their end-of-season ranking in the ESPN RISE FAB 50 and input from a selection committee. The winner of the boys' bracket for the second year in a row was Findlay College Prep at the Henderson (Nev.) International School, adding fuel to the fire for critics of putting high school teams on a national stage.

Findlay Prep is quite familiar with the spotlight and has been a hotbed of controversy in recent years. The school's team is made up of players from all over the country, and while detractors say it is a glorified travel team, others say the athletes benefit from the school's customized one-on-one education opportunities. However, in late February, Henderson International announced that it would be closing after the 2009-10 school year due to financial difficulties, leaving the Findlay Prep basketball program searching for a new home.

Abigail Funk is an Assistant Editor at
Athletic Management.
A version of this article is appearing in our sister publication, Coaching Management.
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