New AIA bylaw finally addresses prep transfer ‘epidemic’

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It has been a long journey – actually more of an odyssey – to finally reach a decision on amending the transfer rule that requires high school athletes in Arizona to sit out a year after moving to a new school.

But, after almost four years of consideration, the long-sought decision by the Arizona Interscholastic Association (AIA) in Friday’s March meeting of its legislative council still doesn’t appear to be the end of the road.  Even the originator of the proposal admits it won’t solve the problem completely and will likely have to be re-visited down the road.

But every journey begins with a first step, right?

As far back as the fall of 2012, the AIA began considering putting a distance qualifier on the transfer rule that was on the books.  The organization that oversees prep sports throughout the state was being bombarded with calls about eligibility issues on almost a daily basis as the problem was beginning to reach epidemic proportions.

The issue revolves around high school athletes switching schools in search of a sports program that will provide them with a better chance of playing, or playing at a higher level, at a different school.  It’s more prevalent in the “major” sports like football and basketball, but exits throughout the system.

It frustrates coaches that lose a quality athlete while they’re trying to improve their own program and dramatically tilts competitive balance across the board.

In March of 2013, the issue finally made its way onto the legislative council’s agenda.  Council members debated whether to tack on a mileage requirement that would limit transfer distances as a way to begin curbing the abuse. That proposal got 25 votes, one short of the two-thirds majority that was needed, and the issue faded into the background until last year.

At the March 2015 session it came up again.  This time it got just seven votes.  Everyone seemed to be more concerned about the hassle they anticipated in trying to police the new rules – and the attendant legal actions that were sure to follow.

Maybe they should have looked around to find out what other states were doing to combat the problem.  Several years back, West Virginia passed a transfer rule that said that every student is allowed one transfer after he or she completes the ninth grade, without penalty.

Or Florida, where that state took a much bigger swing at the problem by actually passing a law that put a heavier burden on the schools and coaches to police the activity.  That law took away much of the power of the Florida High School Athletic Association and put it into the hands of the school districts and county government.

But Arizona has finally taken a step in the right direction.  Unfortunately, even the originator of the proposal admits it won’t solve the problem completely and will likely have to be re-visited down the road.

The new AIA bylaw will be put into play over the summer, in time for the start of the next school year. Essentially, it requires a transferring student to sit out half of the upcoming season of his or her sport and, if the transfer occurs during the season, the athlete would have to wait until the next calendar year to be eligible to play.

Those students transferring in from out of state wouldn’t be required to sit out at all, nor would those coming from a former school that didn’t offer that sport.

Perhaps the most significant element to the new bylaw, the one that will have the most impact, is the elimination of the parents’ ability to use a change in residence as a way of getting around the eligibility rules.  There have been too many cases in the past of a family moving into a school district specifically to get their son or daughter into a school with a better sports program.  Sometimes the move is temporary, just long enough to get their children through their prep years.

While this measure has finally addressed the transfer problem, and concrete action has been taken, even Mesa Public Schools Athletic Director Steve Hogen, who proposed the amendment, admits he’s not sure just how much impact the new bylaw will have.  In an Arizona Republic article, he said he “doesn’t think this is a cure-all” and admitted that “probably within two to three years, people will find a loophole for this.”

And there is still the option for the athlete to appeal the transfer rule in those cases where true hardship needs to be considered, but a successful appeal would mean that both the school of origin and the school of destination would have to sign off on paperwork verifying that the transfer was for ‘legitimate’ reasons.

This latest attempt at slowing transfer abuse does have its detractors, those who anticipate that the new bylaw may actually create a bigger problem because those who are considering transferring just for athletic reasons realize that now they will only have to sit out half a season.

Only time will tell how effective this new bylaw will be.

It appears to be a step in the right direction.  But could turn out to be just side-stepping the bigger issue.