TSSAA’s Legislative Council on March 12 voted 7-2 to table a measure that would have created a true public-private split in Tennessee high school athletics, with public schools competing in Division I and private schools in Division II, regardless of financial aid status.
Currently, private schools who do not offer tuition incentives to student-athletes are permitted to play in the public school ranks, much to the chagrin (and growing angst) of many public schools.
The proposal before the Legislative Council was sponsored by Trousdale County High School and Lewis County High School, with letters of support from 31 public schools, representing 7.5 percent of TSSAA’s membership. But support for the change goes well beyond 31 schools. Oneida, for example, was not one of the schools writing a letter of support but had lobbied for the change.
According to reports from journalists who were at the meeting, a majority of the Legislative Council appeared to favor a public-private split, but TSSAA figureheads cautioned against making the move. Assistant executive director Bernard Childress argued that this is not the time to make such a move, and the association’s attorney warned that privates might break off TSSAA if the Legislative Council forged ahead with the proposal.
The latter argument appeared to be what stalled the measure, with the Legislative Council apparently wishing to gather input from all TSSAA member schools.
It seems unlikely that private schools would leave TSSAA, once the obligatory threats and lawsuits were sorted through. Nationally, only one sanctioned high school athletics association is recognized per state. In Tennessee, that one organization is TSSAA. And splitting off to form their own group would leave private schools completely out to dry — making it inconvenient to complete football schedules and darned near impossible to complete basketball and baseball schedules.
But if the privates did stick to their guns, if they did leave TSSAA, should that really be germane to the conversation?
TSSAA should do what’s right for Tennessee high school athletics, regardless of the ramifications. How a move would impact TSSAA’s bottom line shouldn’t matter.
The argument from TSSAA figureheads that a public-private split shouldn’t happen because the privates might split off and form their own association isn’t unlike last year’s argument against returning to a 5-class format for football even though the vast majority of football coaches supported the measure. Last year was about lost playoff revenue; this year is about lost membership dues. Both are about how TSSAA’s bottom line might be impacted.
And that’s unfortunate. If keeping publics and privates together is what’s best for Tennessee high school athletics, TSSAA should do that. If splitting them is what’s best for Tennessee high school athletics, TSSAA should do that.
Disingenuous arguments to stave off a vote should not be part of the conversation. When Childress cautioned the Legislative Council on March 12 to not make a “knee-jerk” decision, that’s exactly what it was: a disingenuous argument. This topic of conversation has been hotly debated for 24 years.
That’s almost two and a half decades. How is doing something about it now knee-jerk? If TSSAA truly wants or needs time to poll all schools and study the issue, it has had ample time to do that.
In the end, tabling the motion to allow time for polling schools across the state isn’t a bad thing if TSSAA’s front office and its Legislative Council listen to the will of its members and consider what’s best for Tennessee high school athletics.
But will they? If 24 years of precedent is any indication, the will of the membership and what’s best for student-athletes will continue play second fiddle to money.
■ Ben Garrett is Independent Herald editor. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.