Originally published in the June 22 issue of The Contributor.
There’s throwing out the baby with the bathwater, and there’s blowing up the tub.
The Tennessee Secondary School Athletic Association, which governs athletics for the large majority of the state’s high schools, met earlier this month to discuss possibly separating private schools from public schools for competition purposes. The Legislative Council, a nine-member group that would be ultimately responsible for this decision, is set to meet again on July 16 and will likely vote on the topic at that time.
Prior to the 1997-98 school year, the TSSAA created a second division – Division II — for independent schools that offer need-based financial aid for its student-athletes. Since then, private schools have been allowed to continue playing in Division I as long as their student-athletes do not receive need-based financial aid. Those private schools have subsequently been subjected to an enrollment multiplier (currently 1.8) for classification purposes.
A total of 24 private schools statewide compete in Division I. Those are the schools that would be most directly affected by next month’s decision. Eight of those schools are located in the Nashville/Middle Tennessee area.
And while much of the conjecture for a complete public/private split centers around creating ‘a level playing field’, the hue and cry is overwhelmingly related to state championships – the opportunity to play for and win them.
“As a former athlete and coach, I’d say I wanted to play the best,” said Bernard Childress, executive director of the TSSAA. “If we couldn’t beat the best, we knew we had some work to do – go back to the drawing board, practice harder and get better.
“I think if we polled (current student-athletes), they’d say the same thing: We want to play the best, and if we can’t beat them, we’ll get better.”
Locally, there are two sides to the coin. Christ Presbyterian Academy, Goodpasture and Lipscomb Academy (formerly David Lipscomb High School) have combined for 70 state titles in their respective existences, 52 in Division I since the formation of Division II. However, Clarksville Academy (boys basketball, 2010), Columbia Academy (baseball, 1994), Nashville Christian and Middle Tennessee Christian have won just two crowns between them, one since 1997-98, and Franklin’s Grace Christian Academy will begin its first year as a member of the TSSAA this fall.
“Nashville Christian has never won a team state championship in anything,” said Jeff Brothers, entering his sixth year as football coach and athletics director at the school. “We’ve been more successful recently, but are we too hot to handle?
“I think there’s a lot of kneejerk reaction to 10 percent of the people making 90 percent of the noise. Football and basketball (are) driving the decision, to give more people opportunities to win championships. The effect goes further than who makes the football playoffs.”
More to the point, those schools don’t do business the same way as DII stalwarts Brentwood Academy, Ensworth and the Montgomery Bell Academy. And should the split actually occur, how they do business will change.
“Schools that don’t have the large budgets, like us, how do they take care of the minor sports,” wondered Brothers, who coached at Pope John Paul II prior to his arrival at Nashville Christian and played at Brentwood Academy before earning all-Southeastern Conference honors as a defensive back at Vanderbilt.
And before saying ‘that’s their problem’, be careful — because how they do business could impact how the public schools remaining in Division I do business as well.
“History says they’re going to table it (in July), consider all the options and do more research, but I think they’re amping up to make a decision,” he said. “If I’m them, I’m concerned the independent (private) schools draft their own constitution and make their own association.”
Even if a total separation spurs an all-private school league, Brothers doesn’t anticipate a rampant raid by private schools on the top public-school athletes as a result, even if some onlookers see that worse-case scenario as a possibility.
“I’d hesitate to say it’s going to be a free-for-all,” he said. “I’d think in our own organization, we’d recognize the budget limitations for a Nashville Christian, a Donelson Christian, a Mt. Juliet Christian. This isn’t an Ensworth/Brentwood Academy issue. I think if we govern ourselves, I don’t believe it would be recruiting open season. There’s more to it than the surface ‘who gets the best players’.
“We’re going to play where they tell us to. But we may be playing in our own league, our own association.”