LHSAA: Getting more and more like the NCAA
By: SCOTT JOINER
This is the second of a two part series about the LHSAA and its leadership.
The NCAA takes a lot of heat in the national media for doing things that are obvious to the masses, such as blatant money-grabbing maneuvers.
Since Tommy Henry resigned, he said the Louisiana High School Athletic Association has taken a turn into a similar moneymaking machine and it’s not quite as concerned about the athletes it oversees under the current regime of Kenny Henderson.
One recent example comes to mind. During the last day of the state softball tournament in Sulphur, fans were told to leave the facility after the semi-finals and to re-enter for the championship games.
Those fans that wanted to watch their children play or root on their school had to pay again to see those championship games. This after paying for meals, gas, hotel rooms and other expenses incurred on the trip, including pricey shirts and other items hawked by the LHSAA.
But, hey, why not squeeze a few more dollars out of those folks?
“When I was there that really isn’t the way it was,” Henry said. “We always put on the events the best we could and the money would take care of itself. I came up under the philosophy that the schools would take care of the association. Although, I knew they couldn’t take care of the organization financially the way they wanted it run with the modern technology and all that. So we had corporate sponsors to help pay for all that.
“Next year, you’re going to see with the basketball regionals, they are all set up for money,” Henry said. “It’s getting more like the NCAA. When you start (structuring) the tournament to make sure you have local teams, then that’s money motivated. We didn’t do that when I was there.”
With the previous set up in Lafayette the boys’ tournament was a neutral somewhat-centrally located place that would be a Louisiana basketball utopia for a few days.
Same in Hammond at the girls’ tournament, sometimes the association made big money and other times the teams in competition were from so far away that the attendance wasn’t outstanding.
“We had the girls’ tournament in Hammond and if the local teams made it, they just made it by winning,” Henry said. “If they didn’t, we didn’t have local teams there. We didn’t draw as well. One sport would always pick the other up it seemed like. In boys’ basketball in Lafayette, sometimes we had local teams and sometimes we didn’t. But it was never moved over to Lafayette to make sure we have local teams because there is no guarantee who is going to be there.”
Another new source of income the LHSAA has leveraged is through fining coaches and principals more often.
A local coach was recently fined $500 for making contact with junior high athletes within his school’s attendance zone. It’s a convoluted rule that deals with a private school and a public school residing in the same city.
The private school, Central Catholic, is able to have its eighth graders in pads, while Morgan City can’t have access to its junior high athletes that are in the same public school system due to CCHS being in town.
Since I don’t know the secret handshake at the LHSAA they won’t tell me who reported Morgan City.
Henry was around when the rule was passed allowing private schools to use eighth graders in competition and it reached the state legislature, which would likely be the case if the movement to split the LHSAA gained much steam.
“I could be wrong here, but if they would’ve done this with the strong Catholic influence in this state the state legislature would’ve gotten involved,” Henry said. “We had a couple non-public school issues come up in the legislature and it was really hard, one time we didn’t even win. They passed Act 465, which allowed non-public school kids to be eligible if they went to the eighth grade in the same school system.
“It should’ve been the easiest proposed law for us to have defeated, because there were a lot more public schools. But the lobby of the Catholic schools was so strong. I don’t believe the legislature would’ve gotten involved because we weren’t treating all the schools the same then. I said, if you’re going to do this, you’ve got to take that clause out of the constitution that says ‘We’re going to look after the welfare of all students from all schools because we wouldn’t be doing that.’”
Henry’s objections failed and the powerful Catholic lobby won its fight. That ruling and the tweaking of rules slowly but surely led to a perceived competitive advantage for the non-public schools.
“The shoe could be reversed, Morgan City could have the eighth grade, but that’s just the way it is,” Henry said. “They changed that rule. Almost everything is a violation now. But, see it used to, when I was commissioner — and I’m not saying it’s wrong. That wouldn’t have been a fine then. Coaches had the right, in those days, to talk with any players that would be immediately eligible for their school.
“So, an eighth grader at Central Catholic could attend Morgan City High School, and be eligible immediately. I can go over and say, ‘Son or girl, I would like for you to come to MCHS and play football,’ and that would not be a violation. Then, if I said, ‘I would like to see you come to MCHS and give you a scholarship,’ then I’ve applied undue influence and it becomes a violation. Just contacting them, wasn’t (a violation). I don’t know why the public schools would be for that rule.”
Rick Cobia, athletic director and head football coach from Taylor High School in Texas has never dealt with the LHSAA, but said he can’t believe something like that is allowed to go on.
“That’s one thing I would not agree with at all, I would have a difficult time as a coach feeling like the playing fields were level and it was fair across the board,” Cobia said. “We’re teaching kids to follow rules and to play the game fairly, but where is the fairness when that is allowed to happen in a private vs. a public school?
“Some of us coaches think that because they have access to those kids in the spring they are getting a jump-start, or having two seasons instead of one. We have one season in the fall and if they have a fall and a spring then those kids gain a lot more experience and grow up a lot faster. It tilts the playing field and doesn’t make it fair.”
As I said in the first part of this series, the eighth grade rule when two schools are in the same city carries the stench of allowing the private schools a chance to offer scholarships and recruit.
“You hear complaints about schools recruiting,” Henry said. “… It was mostly about non-public schools because a student can go anywhere. They could live in New Iberia and go to Central Catholic, but they couldn’t go to Morgan City without a change of residence.”
The LHSAA has power to do many things that are questionable, such as hiring private investigators to determine residence of athletes. In one case, back in 2003, two individuals, -one still in power - were accused of demanding access to an athletes’ home to investigate and allegedly “pulled out drawers and threw things around in the house.”
Does that sound like the actions of an athletic organization?
Henry said the powers of the LHSAA are limited and, without subpoena power, it gets tough to prove allegations when it comes to things like recruiting.
“We couldn’t subpoena records and so forth, plus the smart coaches — I’m talking about public and non-public — if I wanted to recruit your son then I would talk to you alone where you had no witnesses, I would talk to your son alone for no witnesses,” Henry said. “What would happen is most of the allegations we had, my gut feelings were that they were founded. But I have to stand up in front of the executive committee and say I know this because of this and that. The smart coaches, or the smart recruiters, would leave no witnesses. I had a kid at Holy Cross whose mother swore she didn’t have the money to keep him in school. He told me the coach called him in and gave him $1,000 so he could stay in school. She didn’t come up with the money and the boy said the coach gave it to him and the coach said he didn’t. I couldn’t prove it and we had a lot of those.
“It made us look like we weren’t doing our job, but again, I always felt like it takes the testimony of two to prove something. Recruiting was tough. It was probably one of the hardest things we did. The investigation wasn’t hard. You get to where you really feel like there is a violation. I went to St. Augustine one time and they had 36 football players on scholarships and eight basketball players. That was easy, they don’t always go that way.”
Private schools have won 67 state titles in football under the LHSAA’s watch.
Are the coaches that much better? Or does it have something to do with the players they can bring in?
That’s my main argument for splitting the schools into separate leagues.
Some say the two wouldn’t be able to coexist. I get that, but non-district schedules would still allow for crossover in competition, but it does have its barriers.
“You can play (private schools), the problem is if you play a school like that, it gives them a chance to recruit your kids,” Cobia said. “They can see your kid, meander in the crowd and talk to the parents and say, ‘Hey who is that No. 5? He’s impressive, I would like to talk to his parents.’ Then they can promise them things, maybe they can meet them, maybe they can’t. That causes public schools to be hesitant playing too many private schools.”
I stick by my opinion that the schools should play in separate leagues, but it’s going to take a group of public school principals to band together and take a stand.
That’s easier said than done, but maybe the public school principals can at least fight for a level playing field under the current system.