No matter what organizing body your school belongs to, it undoubtedly has a big book of rules to adhere to. Avoiding violations requires getting everyone on the same page.
By Kirby Whitacre
Kirby Whitacre is Director of Athletics for the South Bend Community School Corporation, which includes four public high schools and 10 intermediate centers, and has also served at Mishawaka and Zionsville high schools, all in Indiana. He has written numerous articles and been a guest speaker at state, regional, national, and international conferences. He can be reached at: email@example.com.
Most athletic administrators pride themselves on leading a "clean program." However, even in the most well-run athletic departments, occasional rules violations can occur.
The sheer number of regulations makes it hard to keep up with them all. For example, the Indiana High School Athletic Association (IHSAA) rule book runs approximately 200 pages. The high rate of coaching turnover, coupled with an ever-increasing number of non-teacher coaches, makes educating those in the trenches difficult. And there continues to be increased demands put upon athletic administrators in almost all programs to take on duties not strictly related to athletics.
Despite the roadblocks, we still need to find time to educate our coaches about following rules and monitor their actions. We also need a strategy for responding to any violations. The keys, I've found, are to develop a well thought-out philosophy and a plan that includes regular communication with coaches on the topic.
RULES ON THE RADAR
The rule book here in Indiana includes a clause that states, "It shall be the duty of member school principals to see that all members of their staff who deal with athletics and all student-athletes are made aware of these rules and regulations." Most principals delegate this duty to their athletic administrators, and we should take this responsibility very seriously.
As athletic directors, we need to start by being well-versed on the entire rule book in our state. If we don't understand every regulation, we have no way to know when a rule is being violated. I like to quiz my colleagues on rules and try to find rules they might not know. When they do the same to me, it encourages some great discussions.
From there, we must make every effort to stay abreast of changes and impending changes. I do this by participating in our state athletic administrators association, attending regional IHSAA meetings, reading professional journals, and networking with peers and policymakers at the state and national levels.
After educating ourselves, we each need a plan for educating our coaches. I do this through group and individual meetings, memorandums, e-mails, postings in prominent places, and making pertinent information part of our Coaches' Handbook. This is a fairly effective way to cover all bases. However, the system breaks down if the athletic administrator is not actively communicating the importance of following the rules.
One of the things I continually preach to our staff is that you can never be too careful when it comes to double checking every detail because violations can come in very unexpected ways. For example, one of our school athletic administrators once hired a referee for a freshman basketball game who was well known and had been licensed and officiating games for years. A few days after the game, it came to light that the referee had not renewed his license. Our self-report for using an unlicensed official resulted in the forfeit of the game.
Of course, we knew we were required to have registered officials. But it never occurred to us that a longtime referee would not renew his license, and then continue officiating the games that he had accepted when he was licensed. These are the type of minute details of which everyone must be cognizant. We now confirm the licensing status of all officials before every game.
I also remind coaches that every rule is there for a reason. At a school where I previously worked, we had one coach who allowed a player to try out for a team without a physical, which is expressly against IHSAA and our school's rules. When the student-athlete eventually had her exam, she was not cleared to play due to a heart condition. Upon learning these facts, and the coach admitting them to be true, I immediately terminated his employment. The coach's careless lack of attention to detail could have endangered a life.
While most rules don't have potential catastrophic consequences associated with them, they all have much thought and discussion behind them. There will always be a great deal of talk about the intent of a rule, the "spirit" of that intent, and the literal interpretation. I explain to our coaches that every rule is important, even if they don't feel it has a lot of merit. Over the years I have seen coaches who were "selective rule breakers." These individuals have to be reined in early in their careers.
Once or twice per year, I also like to educate my coaches on rules that are obscure or frequently unknowingly violated. I deliberately seek out rules that fit this and either circulate a memorandum or discuss them at a group meeting. For example, coaches do not often understand the difference between Moratorium Week, when there is no contact permitted between coaches and athletes, and IHSAA Week 4, when conditioning is the only activity that can be done. I also go over the subtle difference between the activities of "open facility" and "conditioning," which may sound the same but are very different. (For more on frequently broken rules, see sidebar below.)
And I also relay a really obscure rule. Most coaches and many athletic administrators do not know that, as long as IHSAA rules are observed in the administration of the event, a high school team may schedule a contest with a college team. I have not seen it done, but it is in the rules and is fun to point out to people who think they've mastered the rule book.
New coaches may need some extra education. I often copy sections of the rule book that I think might be confusing, such as those on participation and undue influence. It becomes very hard for a coach to claim ignorance when you have presented him or her with a hard copy of the rules.
While it's impossible to monitor coaches to ensure they are following every regulation, it's important to keep your eyes and ears open. The best way to find out if a coach is lax in rules compliance is direct observation. Some discreet questioning of athletes may be necessary if you feel a coach might be acting differently when you're not around.
To keep everyone on staff focused on this important duty, what I've learned over the years is to keep checklists, go over the smallest details with a fine tooth comb, and have secretaries and coaches help confirm information. I try to embrace following the rules as a team effort and that it is incumbent on everyone on staff to help each other in being compliant.
DEALING WITH A VIOLATION
I'd love to say that the above plan ensures there will be no rules violations, but that would be unrealistic. Coaches and staff do forget to check the fine print at times or sometimes feel they can get around a rule without anyone noticing.
When I find that a coach may have broken a rule, my first step is to discuss the matter directly with him or her in a private meeting. Most of the time, when presented with facts, coaches will admit to what occurred. Often they do so with the caveat that "I didn't know" or "it entailed extenuating circumstances." Some want to debate the rule. But ultimately I bring the conversation back to the fact that they need to accept responsibility for the violation. Intentionally breaking a rule normally results in probation.
When violations are misunderstandings that are not intentional, I am usually supportive of the coach. But I also use the opportunity to educate all our staff on the rule. The situation can provide an excellent opportunity for reinforcement of the correct interpretation of a rule.
If a violation is determined, I immediately notify upper-level school administrators, providing them with an assessment of the severity of the violation and a plan to remedy or rectify the situation. Such a plan will always include notification of the IHSAA. The state association not only appreciates self-reports but it relies on schools to police themselves and to hold themselves to a high standard of conduct.
From there, I work closely with the IHSAA. My overall philosophy is to be up front and honest with the state association and to take a collaborative approach in all discussions.
I have found informal personal meetings with the decision makers at the IHSAA go a long way in smoothing the process. In these meetings, it's important to take a direct, yet non-confrontational approach, which allows for open communication. This establishes a working relationship that can be carried into the future. Whatever happens, honest communication--within the limits of what can legally be shared--is the best course of action.
In keeping with this philosophy, I seldom file a direct and formal appeal of a decision by the IHSAA. And I would never do so without the advice of our school's legal counsel.
How do these open discussions pan out? One example, from several years ago, is an instance where a group of coaches violated a rule by conducting a tryout (although without instruction) for a summer team during the school year, which is not allowed in our state. This violation typically results in the suspension of the athletes involved for several games. By going to the IHSAA informally, my principal and I were able to convince the Commissioner to allow us to suspend the coach for those games and not punish the athletes.
Another case occurred when one of our wrestling teams was halfway through the postseason. An obscure rule was violated by our coach relating to how an entry list was presented. This was caught and reported by an opponent. Our coach's response was that, "everyone breaks that rule, and it's not enforced." Unfortunately, our coach was wrong. He was correct that there had seldom been penalties, but this was because it was not being reported--not because the governing body was ignoring the rule.
Normally, this rule violation would have led to the disqualification of two participants from the rest of the tournament. But that would punish the athletes for a coach's mistake and both kids were favorites to be state champions. The IHSAA Commissioner asked us for a plan, and we said, "We would like to suspend the coach for the semi-state portion of the tournament and let the kids participate." The Commissioner responded, "I was hoping that would be your suggestion." So we suspended the coach while the athletes went on to participate and do well.
Had we made formal and very public appeals in these cases, they might not have turned out the same way. Subsequent to the first situation, the IHSAA began a policy of allowing schools to suspend coaches so that the athletes were not penalized for actions that were not their responsibility. The dialogue started during our rules violation ended up benefiting many schools and athletes.
That leads to another important component of compliance: Should you report another school when you know it is breaking a rule? My opinion is that this is not a good idea.
A few years ago in April, our coaches allowed some eighth grade parochial school students who were set to attend our school in the fall to work out at our athletic facilities. They thought this would be okay since the students were almost done with their eighth grade year and were enrolled at our school as freshmen. However, the rule at that time made it a violation for these students to train with our coaches until after their last day of parochial school.
We self-reported a violation to the IHSAA, and asked for an interpretation of the rule, which was not entirely clear. Upon receiving the interpretation, we accepted a reprimand. The violation was not intentional but was nevertheless a violation.
During this time frame, we discovered that one of our eighth graders was working out at a local parochial high school he would be attending in ninth grade. I called the athletic administrator there and explained the rule to her, since it was not perfectly clear in its language (and I suspected that it was being violated a significant number of times around the state). The administrator in question stopped the workouts, but did not report her school to the IHSAA. I did not report her school, either.
My view is that my attention must always focus on governing my own program, not others' programs. The rule violation was stopped, which was my goal, and the colleague thanked me for the information. I have my hands full running my own programs, and, in general, I am not going to report other schools. Their integrity is in their own hands.
I have experienced instances when our coaches wanted to report others or felt they should be allowed to break a rule if another school was. My approach is always to explain to our coaches that our focus must be on doing what is right.
If the rule violation at another school is so serious that it poses a threat to the health of the student and the other school does not stop the behavior, then I would report it. The ramifications of that type of non-adherence, I feel, requires action via alerting the association.
One more consideration I make is if the school is in our conference. In that case, I may suggest we address the pertinent rule at the conference level. I ask that we make sure everyone is aware of the regulation in question and following it correctly. I always hope that the collegiality between conference members will help to make these violations a learning experience. It's best if they can be handled informally so fingers are not pointed, yet the violation is not repeated.
Sometimes, parents become involved in a rules issue, either because they make an accusation or want to challenge a ruling against their child. This can make the resolution process more difficult and can require a different approach.
Over the years, parents have alleged rules violations by our coaches several times. Some have represented valid concerns of parents and others were attempts to get a coach in trouble. Often, the parent misunderstands the rule.
When their reports are valid, I follow through with the coach. However, if the parent is presenting false information, I find a way to get them the correct rule interpretation and I show my support of the coach. This usually takes the wind out of their sails.
Another difficult situation is when parents disagree with our self-reporting of a violation or with a penalty decision by the IHSAA. We always try to explain the reasoning with the parents to the best of our ability, but sometimes that is not enough. Local media may fan the flames against the school administration or state association, which further harms our process.
In such cases, an individual or group meeting of parents may be necessary. I often have both administrators and coaches who are well-respected present to show a united front and handle tough questions. Sometimes it's helpful to have attorneys, other types of experts, or even community members who understand the situation at the meeting.
Under certain circumstances, I may contact the local media and ask if they would write a story that provides all the true facts and an explanation. This can serve as an accurate source of information for the public. I have also disseminated media releases within the context of a carefully prepared statement. Frequently, I have school district attorneys approve these before release.
One case I dealt with resulted in parents taking the IHSAA to court over its ruling on their child's eligibility, which eventually left me with a very difficult choice between letting the athlete play or not. It started with the IHSAA determining the athlete was ineligible, and the parents appealing the decision. Per my usual method of operation, I did not support the athlete's appeal. I attended the hearing to observe, arranging my attendance beforehand with the IHSAA.
Upon the IHSAA's denial of the appeal, the athlete's attorney requested a court injunction to make the athlete eligible. The judge granted the injunction and declared that the athlete should be allowed to play. The athlete was permitted to return to the team on the advice of our attorney, who told us "to follow the court order."
Later, the case went to the state appellate court where the initial judge's decision was upheld. Later still, it ended up in the State Supreme Court where the decision was overturned. By the time all this happened the athlete was off playing college ball. However, since the athlete had been allowed to play, the IHSAA came back with penalties upon our school.
What if we had not allowed the athlete to participate? In my opinion we would have been sued by the parents and also may have been in contempt of the court order. I seriously doubt we could have won with a court decision to the contrary--in our local court no less--already in the athlete's pocket. The case obviously put me in a "no-win" situation.
I'm not sure what advice I have for anyone in a similar situation, except to maintain an open channel of communication with the state association. Of course, the family's attorney and the school district attorneys were also frequently speaking with the IHSAA. But there was a fair amount of discussion without attorneys. Personally, I made sure to not take an adversarial role with the IHSAA, and I think this approach helped avoid a greater penalty than the one ultimately handed down.
Any case like this typically takes decision making out of the hands of the athletic administrator and places it into the hands of his or her superiors, attorneys, and maybe even the school board. At that point, it's important to provide any information needed by others and to follow the proceedings as they develop.
Throughout the ups and down of rules violations, it is always best to follow what you feel is right and never compromise your school's integrity--or your own. Rules are put in place for a reason, and the enforcement of such codes is a direct result of the ethics of individual athletic administrators. Good people make mistakes, report them, accept the penalty, and put measures in place to prevent future occurrences.
Sidebar: MOST OFTEN BROKEN
State associations typically have a lot of rules. Which ones are violated most often?
Here in Indiana, coaches seem to struggle most with the Indiana High School Athletic Association rule regarding our mandated Moratorium Week, which occurs annually during the week of July 4th, when coaches are to have no contact with athletes. The purpose is to give kids a break from the demands put upon them and their families for off-season workouts. A review of the most recent violations in our state shows that this was the rule broken most often this past year. To the credit of those involved, many of these were self-reported.
Two of the rules most violated in our state that most often go unreported involve practice situations. One is a prohibition against coaches allowing alumni to practice with the team during the contest season. The second is baseball and softball coaches conducting fall practices under the guise of "open facility" regulations. I think some coaches and athletic administrators rationalize that everyone does it, so it is no big deal. However, that is not an excuse, and it would be best if schools actively self-monitored these rules.
Another common rule violation in Indiana is the use of ineligible players in interscholastic contests. This may be due to academics, incomplete transfer or foreign exchange student paperwork, a player exceeding the maximum number of quarters or contests within a given time frame, a player having an insufficient number of practices to begin the season, or failure to have the results of a physical exam on file. It is important that athletic administrators work closely with coaches to ensure ineligible athletes don't take the fields or courts.