National media covers AZ prep sports…for wrong reason

Arizona has been getting more unwanted national publicity – and this time it has nothing to do with immigration or Sheriff Arpaio.

This time it has come from the unlikely arena of high school sports.

No, it isn’t because Arizona high schools seem to be firing coaches at a record pace, often without reasonable cause.  The final case of the year was a good example, as Chaparral High School in Scottsdale fired its boys basketball coach after he left a coaching position at Pepperdine University to take the job, moved to Arizona, and tried to bring some calm to a program in the middle of parent-induced turmoil.

After one season, in which he took the team to the Division I tournament, Damin Lopez was let go with no explanation.

And the media attention also has nothing to do with the constant squabbling between the high school coaches and the state’s governing body, the Arizona Interscholastic Association.

The latest AIA issue capped off an interesting year, as the organization refused to admit that the system of assigning power points for wins and losses was flawed – to the extent that the system may have cost a number of high school teams the opportunity to participate in the state playoffs, going back several years.

However, it did reluctantly change the system in time for the state tournaments.  (4/2/12 phxfan article)

And let’s not forget the parents who had to get a court order to enable their son to compete in the Division I state track meet.  Edgar Poe, a senior at Cienega High School, expected to compete in the 110-meter high hurdles, but found out at the last minute that his coach didn’t get his name entered into the computer software in time to meet the deadline.

(OK, not as bad as the mother in Arkansas who sued when her son was cut from the high school varsity basketball team, claiming he had a constitutional right to participate in school sports.)

But, hey, you can’t make this stuff up.

Fortunately, those stories resulted in no more than a little local coverage.  But the final nail in Arizona’s credibility coffin made headlines all across the country when a parochial school opted to forfeit its chance at a state baseball championship rather than play against a girl on the opposing team.

Now, this one got coverage from the Pacific Coast to New England – and all points in between.  Articles appeared in major dailies like USA Today, the LA Times, Chicago Tribune, Washington Post, and New York Daily News – just to name a few.  It was even carried by the Toronto Sun in Canada and interview requests came from as far away as Ireland.

And that doesn’t even include all the coverage on sports blogs and social media sites across the country and around the globe.

The headline-writers sure had fun… “Arizona high school forfeits championship game because of icky girl”… “Catholic high school throws a tantrum over facing a girl in Arizona baseball“… “Catholic baseball team is afraid of a girl.”  Yes, the Catholic religion shared in the ridicule.

The firestorm began when Our Lady of Sorrows Academy (OLSA), a tiny K-12 school in Phoenix, announced just before the state championship game was to be played against Mesa Preparatory Academy that it had decided to forfeit the opportunity to play for the title.

That decision was based solely on the fact that Mesa Prep had a 15-year-old freshman girl playing second base.  Paige Sultzbach had joined the baseball team because the small charter school, founded in 2006 and sporting an enrollment of just 122 students, couldn’t field a softball team.

OLSA is a fundamentalist Catholic school that is run by the U.S. branch of the Society of Saint Pius X, a conservative group of priests that broke away from the Catholic Church in the ’80s, which is when the school was founded.  The school has a policy that prohibits co-ed sports.

The school didn’t offer an immediate explanation for its decision to forfeit the game, but said in a later statement provided to the media that the “school teaches boys respect by not placing girls in athletic competition, where proper boundaries can only be respected with difficulty.”

If that sounds to you like something out of the 19th century, you aren’t alone.  And that’s why the media has been having a field day with it.

The decision by OLSA reinforces stereotypes that many thought were buried in the past, and runs head-on into the reforms of the federal Title IX laws that require schools to provide equal opportunities for boys and girls to participate in sports.

Fortunately, the media won’t get another shot at this issue again next year.  Mesa Prep is leaving the Arizona Charter Athletic Association and joining the AIA, so there won’t be an opportunity again for conflict – unless one of the other teams in the league decides to add a girl to its roster.

But one nagging question will remain.

These two teams played twice during the regular season.  Each time, Sultzbach offered to sit out the game, in deference to the OLSA policies.  Mesa Prep, which went through the season undefeated, won both of those games, including an 11-3 thumping in late April.

So the question is simple… would OLSA (6-3) have forfeited the title game if the situation were reversed and, instead of likely suffering one more loss, they were actually favored to win the championship?

We’ll never know.  But it’s an interesting question, isn’t it?