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Kadner: Sports, schools and politics, oh my

IHSA executive director Marty Hickman speaks with reporters before testifying May House committee hearing Springfield May.  |  AP

IHSA executive director Marty Hickman speaks with reporters before testifying in May at a House committee hearing in Springfield in May. | AP photo

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Updated: June 24, 2014 6:23AM



There’s nothing like a government hearing to remind a person that democracy can be a scary process.

On Tuesday, officials of the organization responsible for overseeing high school sports in Illinois appeared before the House Elementary and Secondary Education Committee in Springfield.

Republicans ripped Democrats for questioning the practices of the Illinois High School Association, which is run independently of the state.

Democrats ripped the IHSA for not having more minority members on its staff, spending too much money on staff salaries and keeping too many secrets.

The IHSA representatives, to the apparent amazement of many lawmakers, said the organization receives no money from the Legislature, gets its revenue from sponsorship deals and distributes it to the public schools.

Republicans and Democrats also squabbled over the size of the meeting room, which was far too small to accommodate the overflow crowd.

And everyone agreed there wasn’t enough time Tuesday to conduct an adequate hearing because legislators had to be in session by 2 p.m. But that time limitations didn’t curtail the petty political grandstanding.

I watched all of this live-streaming on my computer with the fascination of someone viewing a demolition derby.

By the way, legislators, with two weeks left in the current session of the General Assembly, are still trying to decide how they’re going to pay this state’s bills if a “temporary” income tax increase is allowed to expire at the end of the year.

As for the IHSA, it would be easy to make fun of some legislators who apparently had no idea how state basketball tournaments are run.

But I’ve been confused by the IHSA’s role as a governing body for decades, and Tuesday’s hearing provided little enlightenment.

The IHSA is a nonprofit, member organization overseen by a board consisting of officials of public and some private schools. Besides overseeing high school athletics, it also runs the annual Scholastic Bowl, a revelation that was new to me.

The IHSA staffers who write the questions for the Scholastic Bowl apparently have been accused of plagiarism. I’m not really clear what that means in the context of a Scholastic Bowl, but it became quite clear Tuesday that there’s outrage over the firing of a staff member for raising ethical concerns about the plagiarism incident.

Unfortunately, I didn’t hear much in the way of questions during Tuesday’s hearing about how the IHSA goes about policing its member schools, which has been a keen interest of mine.

Unlike the NCAA, which oversees college athletics, the IHSA doesn’t seem to do much in the way of regulating the practices of public high school coaches or athletic directors.

One recent example is the girls basketball program at Homewood-Flossmoor High School, where several players this year left other schools to play for H-F and its new coach, who had been the highly successful girls coach at Bolingbrook High School. That led to the parent of an unnamed H-F player, who was pushed out as a starter, suing the school district over the player transfers.

When it was revealed that several of the transfers listed the same address in the H-F school district, the IHSA looked pretty bad — at least to those of us who aren’t familiar with the messy business that has become championship-caliber basketball at the high school level.

It turns out the IHSA has no investigative staff and relies on schools to police themselves, or at least blow the whistle on rivals whom they feel have violated IHSA bylaws.

In talking to people who write about high school sports for a living, I found out that students are often illegally recruited by coaches and often transfer from one public school to another without ever actually living in any of the school districts where they go to school.

Anyone concerned about ethics and sportsmanship ought to be concerned about that sort of thing, but they should probably also be worried about high school coaches who run their own “traveling teams” and “sports camps” — often making money and recruiting prospects in the process.

From the reaction I get when I mention this stuff, few people want to think about any of that.

The IHSA’s business, as far as I can tell, is primarily to make money running state tournaments. Given the support exhibited by school superintendents and athletic directors on Tuesday, the IHSA is doing that to the satisfaction of its members, even if it has been making less money for several years running.

School officials were so vocal in their support of Republicans on the House committee (loudly applauding their attacks on Democrats) that one Democratic legislator reminded the audience that if Republicans had their way in Springfield the state education budget would be cut, teachers (including athletic directors) would get paid less and none of them would get state-funded pensions.

People often are fickle when it comes to government, demanding stuff from it one day and denouncing it the next for spending too much. High school administrators, athletic directors and coaches are no exception.

I would be remiss if I didn’t mention that news organizations also came under fire during Tuesday’s hearing.

The Illinois Press Association has been feuding with the IHSA since 2008 over photography and broadcast rights at state tournaments. The IHSA makes money off the sale of those rights and has accused newspapers of filing lawsuits because they sell the photographs on their websites.

The press association claims that the IHSA’s relationship with public schools make it a “state actor,” and it should have to adhere to state laws regarding open meetings and public information.

Representatives from the state board of education, by the way, made it clear that the board does not have the resources or any plans to take over for the IHSA.

The lawmakers decided to hold more hearings.



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