Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 13/9/2017 (277 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.
Much like physicians, the custodians of our public school system should always do their best to ensure that policies and practices enacted to protect students do not inadvertently cause harm.
Unfortunately, that principle seems lost on the Manitoba High Schools Athletic Association (MHSAA), which is standing firm on a policy governing the transfer of student-athletes from one school to another despite clear evidence that it is arbitrarily unfair to some.
The MHSAA transfer policy became news when the football program at Murdoch MacKay Collegiate folded. A promising defensive back named Riley Mikkelson applied to transfer to another school that had a football program. The 17-year-old and his family have invested quite a bit of time and money to seek some sort of scholarship to play university football. His senior year is a critical moment in that pursuit.
Unfortunately, the MHSAA strictly forbids any student-athlete from transferring to another school after playing even a single game in their Grade 10 year. That includes students who have played for programs that have been discontinued.
Mikkelson and his family have appealed the decision to deny his transfer. However, while the current policy is in place, there is really no chance they will succeed.
The policy is not without its justification.
The debate over student transfers came to a head prior to the 2015 season, led by schools that felt their best players were being poached by two schools in particular: St. Paul’s and Oak Park. Over a period of some years, the football programs at these two high schools had become dominant, and in the process, had started to draw students from all over the city.
The schools that were the net losers in this war for talent complained long and loud about losing students to these two schools. MHSAA never formally investigated any of these allegations, and no one seems able to cite a specific case involving a specific athlete who was clearly recruited to a specific team.
That being said, high school football insiders — former educators, coaches and parents with children that graduated from a city football program — believe that it happened. Although schools rarely did any direct recruiting, the insiders all told stories about parents from one school encouraging friends whose kids were talented athletes to consider utilizing the provincial schools of choice program to move outside their catchment area or division. These names were then whispered in the ears of coaches.
Is this how Oak Park and St. Paul’s built their programs? Nobody can say for sure, but the results in the Winnipeg High School Football League do show that concerns about poaching were not without some basis.
From 2001 to 2014, 12 of 14 AA or AAA provincial football championships were won by either St. Paul’s (7) or Oak Park (5). That is two schools sharing 80 per cent of the highest-level championships involving schools from all over Manitoba and northwestern Ontario. During that period, Churchill High School was the only other school in the province to capture a top-level championship, winning a AA title in 2004 and a AAA title in 2008.
Based on results like that, it’s not hard to see why other schools would mount a campaign to make it harder to transfer student athletes. Now, if you play even one game for one school in your Grade 10 year, including exhibition and tournament games, you are ineligible to transfer unless you meet one of a handful of special circumstances.
Exceptions to the MHSAA policy include situations where families physically move from one catchment area to another, or the student has been forced to relocate to live with family in another part of the city, or if they are trying to escape a bully, or if they took an entire calendar year off from playing high school sports.
The policy specifically states, however, that the collapse of an athletic program does not justify a transfer.
MHSAA executive director Chad Falk said he was not involved directly in the discussions around the current policy. However, Falk said he has been told the schools believed at the time that allowing students from a folded team to change schools would create "chaos with a mass exodus of students" at a delicate stage in the school year.
Falk did concede that of the 300 or more transfer applications he fields each year, only a handful involve students such as Mikkelson who have suddenly found themselves without a team.
A late transfer of a talented athlete is a delicate matter, and can create some awkward situations if not handled properly. There could be resentment from other students who earned their way onto a team through tryouts. There are other concerns about whether schools or their parent groups would actively recruit talented students who had become free agents following the collapse of an athletic program.
Although these are all real concerns, they could be solved with thoughtful tweaks to the existing policy. To this point, however, no one has thought it important enough to bring it up as a possible live issue when the MHSAA schools meet to discuss policy.
Those stewards of school athletics may find some clarity on this issue if they focus on one important question that should be asked before enacting any and all policies: is it in the best interests of students?
Allowing Mikkelson to transfer isn’t about "poaching." It’s not something that will tilt the competitive balance in high school athletics. It won’t open the door to a flood of transfer requests.
It will, however, do right by the handful of students affected by these scenarios each year. And anyone involved in high school sports should find some comfort in that.
Born and raised in and around Toronto, Dan Lett came to Winnipeg in 1986, less than a year out of journalism school with a lifelong dream to be a newspaper reporter.