High School Sports

State of high school sports: WIAA roundtable

Executive director Mike Colbrese, center, says a misconception is the WIAA makes rulings on its own. Colbrese says the WIAA’s job is to work for the schools and the people involved.
Executive director Mike Colbrese, center, says a misconception is the WIAA makes rulings on its own. Colbrese says the WIAA’s job is to work for the schools and the people involved. Staff photo file, 2008

This WIAA roundtable is the second of four discussions with some of the biggest stakeholders in Washington state high school sports. The roundtables:

Part 1: Specialization, with a South Sound coaches roundtable.

Part 2: Recruiting, with a WIAA roundtable.

Part 3: Participation, with a South Sound athletic directors roundtable.

Part 4: Academics, with a Tacoma Captains Council student-athlete roundtable.

The WIAA roundtable panel: Mike Colbrese, Washington Interscholastic Activities Association executive director; John Miller, assistant executive director; Brian Smith, assistant executive director.

TNT: What are you most looking forward to going into the 2015-16 school year?

Colbrese: What I'm most looking forward to is just the school year because every year brings just a little bit different flavor. I'm excited about what unfolds during the year – just the newness of being around the year starting up again and just that whole excitement.

TNT: How long have you been doing this now?

Colbrese: This will be my 23rd year in Washington. I spent five years as an assistant and I also had a six-year commissioner job in Wyoming.

TNT: Does it get tiring after so many years or is everything still fresh for you?

Colbrese: It’s all new. Some things stay the same but it's always different people and different issues. I think it gets more challenging every year. The exciting part is not knowing what the new challenges are going to be, yet being prepared for what you think those challenges will be.

I mean when you look at some of the new issues here – sudden cardiac arrest and making sure we get that addressed correctly. We are making a little bit of change how we are going to be dealing with concussion management. Those are some of the new things.

After this year we're going to a four-year classification cycle so we have to be prepared for that and getting that all laid out.

And we’re addressing the issues with attendance. We have got to have a real serious discussion about what we can do to increase attendance. That is a regular-season and a postseason issue.

And then I think as an association, we a few years ago created a way to make sure we had females and minorities involved. That's with the governance structure of the organization. We have got to take a stronger and deeper look at that and what we can do.

We are in a strategic planning cycle right now and we have a plan all laid out, but one of the things that we are going to spend a lot of time talking about is ‘How do we talk about the good things that go on in high school programs? What are the good programs and why are they the good programs? And what do we do to help you get better?’ Because it's all about the kids – how do we make sure every kid walking out that school has a positive experience through their school athletic and activities programs? Whether it's through activities, music, speech, drama, debate, dance or a sports program. Or is simply a fan.

TNT: What are some of the good programs you’ve seen come out in recent years?

Colbrese: I think Unified Sports has been a big one and we are going to see that grow because we are going to be more involved directly with soccer but we might even see it with basketball and new sports. We might even come out in bowling.

We really think that activity involvement makes the year more positive for every kid. We are trying to drive up our middle school participation as well. Those are the things that we are really focused on.

TNT: What are two or three of the biggest issues you see the WIAA is facing this year?

Colbrese: I still think the finances are going to be an issue. And I know that people are feeling a little bit more comfortable because the legislature made some movement that way, but I still think we will be having that discussion about finances and how we can continue to grow programs for kids within our financial constraints and what we can do to grow that financial piece.

And I think sportsmanship, too. I think people understand the value of being a good sport whether it is a player, coach, official or fan. I think that is a big one.

And now we've been dealing with drones. The board developed a policy last spring and one that we think works for us.

There is a lot of turnover in our schools with athletic administrators, so we've been working with the state administrators association to make sure that we are supporting new people and helping train them well and also fortifying what the veterans have been doing. And training them and making them feel comfortable.

TNT: The term has always been referred to “student-athlete,” but how is the state on making sure they excel in that student-first portion, but also take advantage of the benefits of being an athlete?

Colbrese: I think one of the benefits that we've always felt of being an athlete is really training them for the next step and that is for them to be able to contribute to society. And that is the teamwork,sportsmanship and how you use your time. That is the value of being involved in activities programs.

But I think that before you get there you have to demonstrate that, first of all, that you were enrolled in the school, and secondly that you're taking the right number of classes and passing the classes. So that is the academic setting.

Then there's the health and safety with concussion management, cardiac arrest and making sure that is taken care of first. But you cannot play unless you are a student in good standing.

Miller: I think that is one of our biggest challenges not just this year but going forward. We have to clearly to delineate and educate the community about the value of education-based programs and what they're mission is, as opposed to the non-education based programs. As I few it, we often view the value of the education-based program as the value the kid gets out of the program, but on the other side it's the value the kid puts into the program.

So we are really trying to enhance participation. You don't have to be a star – there are good things you get out of all these programs just from being involved.

TNT: At the same time, how do you emphasize being a student first?

Colbrese: We haven't done a recent study into how we are compared with other states. The most recent thing we've done — and it hasn't been that recent — was we changed our standards where students have to pass more classes to be eligible. Most of our districts actually are higher than our standard. The last study that we did actually showed that 85 percent of our districts actually had a higher standard than we were enforcing. So it made sense to go ahead and make a little bit more stringent.

Grades are the most important thing, but participation is very high as well. To me it is both, but we also know the value of participation is going to carry that student. Participation is so valuable. Just learning who they are through participation is a value that will carry them far in life.

We just got back from our coaches school this past weekend where we had about 450 to 500 coaches. And our object there about beyond the Xs and Os. We think they get a lot of opportunity to learn Xs and Os, but what opportunities do they get to deal with parents, team setting, team character and individual character? Or how to deal with officials and dealing with the coaching staff?

Smith: It also connects kids to school so it helps them feel they are part of that school. A lot of studies show that kids that are playing sports get higher grades, but most important to principals, is that most kids in sports are going to show up. They are going to be there every day and they are going to finish.

TNT: Are you worried about participation in athletics and activities?

Colbrese: One of the things that we are always talking about how do we drive up participation, and that means being vigilant about what we are offering as an association because of what Brian just talked about.

I was at a retirement party a couple of years ago and the person said that kids need a place to take their heart, and not just their mind. You stay connected because of the heart not because of mind. They need to know that it is a big deal to be a Fife Trojan.

We were all former athletes — well I might not be any more, but these guys might still be. I did football, baseball, and ran track. And I was also in choir. I went to college on a vocal scholarship.

TNT: You look like you could hit a falsetto.

Colbrese: That’s right.

Miller: When I was in school, we used to talk about there's a difference between attending school and participating. If you participate in school then you come in much more engaged and then it becomes somewhere where your heart is involved. If you just attend school you might pick up some things here and there but you're not into it.

Smith: We want everybody to make a connection to their school whether it is a club, debate, choir, football or anything.

Colbrese: You couldn’t do what you do if you don't have passion for it. And that is what it's all about. It's trying to help that student figure out what their passion is. Because you're never going to be happy if you do not connect with your passion because your passion is what drives you.

TNT: What are your thoughts on the six-classification system, and do you see that being altered at all going forward?

Colbrese: John handles classifications more directly than I do, but the fact that the committee met over a period of years and they kept coming back and saying that we want four years indicates that the membership really wanted to get to four years. We just wanted to make sure that we could be comfortable with the smaller schools that can sometimes have that spike and were worried that they would be stuck in that classification system for four years. I think the four-year system will create some stability, but also create opportunities for those schools that could benefit from moving to a different classification.

TNT: But are there too many classifications? Too few? Just right?

Colbrese: It really depends on who you ask. You talk to Ric Palmer (the Bickleton School District superintendent) at Bickleton, at the end of the road, and he will say that it is important that we have six classifications because it's important that my kids have a state tournament that is for just them. And in the old system, with five classifications, there was no system for that.

When I came here in 1993 we had four classifications. That system had been in place since 1968. It was 150, 400, and 1,000 (the student-cutoffs for the classifications). Those were the cut offs. I will never forget people coming up and saying ‘What is the rhyme and reason? How do you get from 150 to 400 to 1,000? What's the mathematical formula that you're using?’ And I didn't have an answer at that time. And we started getting phenomenal population boosts all over the state.

So the membership said ‘You know what, we have to figure out something here.’ So that is when the membership agreed that, after two years of fighting, we should go to five classifications. It went to 150, 300, 600, and 1,200. So they were doubling. But then after a year we said that the real rhyme and reason was to have the same number of schools in each classification. And that wasn't happening. The goal was just to make sense of it.

So the B schools had the same 16-team tournament as the 1A schools, even though the 1A schools had about 70 schools. And the 3As and 4As were saying. ‘How is that fair for us that we are at 85 and 95.’ Well the membership didn't want to go to the 32-team tournaments so we thought ‘Well let’s just divide them all equally.’ And the only way to do that without creating too much of a difference in the size is to have a sixth. That's the whole sequence of how that all happened.

So these people who say that you should combine the 3A and the 4A basketball tournaments, I guarantee the first thing you would hear if that ever came to a fruition is ‘Wait a minute, now we have this many schools to compete with to go to a 16-team tournament? How is that fair to us?’

TNT: How is the WIAA doing in combating special interest groups?

Colbrese: I think the rules help do that. But I think that we can go further. One of the things that we have been talking about is developing some kind of a way to monitor these kids that are playing on summer teams with kids from other schools and then the kid wanting to go to that school. That is a subtle exploitation. So how do we address that piece?

The other one is a lot harder. Because exploitation, whether someone is being exploited or not, is a value judgment. ‘How else is my kid going to get a scholarship? What right does the state organization have to tell me what they believe is best for my kids. I should know that.’

Smith: I think some of our amateur rules apply to along the lines of that. I think if you go state-by-state I think the ones that don't have those rules in place have really come under fire by prep schools with agents who are now working my 15-year-old kids trying to get them promoted into the college scene. I just don't think we have that big an issue because I think it's kind of an underlying philosophy that our schools care about this.

Our whole system is built on integrity to be honest with you. Everything we do is built on the integrity of the athletic administrator of the school.

TNT: I think these national tournaments could be seen as an exploitation of the schools and athletes. Is that something you’ve had to walk a fine line on – as teams get better and communication becomes easier, you have to be careful?

Colbrese: One reason Bellevue didn't take the invitation to go to the same event that Eastside Catholic and Bothell went to (the Burger King Champion Bowl Series in Florida) was because they were doing all their early-season games against those teams. And Butch (Goncharoff, Bellevue’s football coach) was basically saying that our season is long enough and we have already played these kinds of games. It's a neat setting but we play our out-of-state games of the front end of the season. We don’t want them at the back end.

Kids are going to get exposure like that from other events. It should not be up to an impact on the school calendar or their other activities to do that. I think that's what the membership said when they defeated the rule on the teams continuing to go to that.

TNT: What are your thoughts on AAU, club and select sports? Have you had to change your philosophy on how you handle select sports?

Colbrese: From my perspective it's our responsibility and our role to make sure the kids and parents understand that there is a greater value that club sports have in their own mission. Ours is educational. Ours is about helping students understand there is a bigger part of themselves that they learn about themselves and represent something greater than themselves through school participation. Our role is to keep making our system better and to be able to explain what it means to help that student grow and to be a better citizen.

As long as we keep that as the forefront it's not our role in a sense to compete with AAU, it's our rule to compete with ourselves to make what we offer better.

TNT: Are you seeing more athletes focusing on one sport because of AAU and select sports?

Colbrese: I think that in some cases kids and parents are being sold a bill of goods that if you play one sport you're going to have your chance of getting better at it compared to if you do that and other sports. There is a part of that that is true. But you also incur some other issues.

TNT: Are you seeing fewer kids playing multiple sports?

Colbrese: There's no doubt about it.

TNT: And why do you think that is?

Colbrese: Kids are going to do what they are going to do and sometimes they're going to do what their parents tell them they have to do.

John has gotten really heavily involved with USAFootball and Heads Up Football. And I was back at a conference in February during state wrestling and USAFootball — their message has really become quite interesting because they are talking about the value of participation in all sports. Not just one. That specialization is not healthy in a lot of different ways for students. So I think you're going to start to see a different type of messaging coming out.

Smith: And then you get multiple different types of coaches and assistant coaches and different influence. When you get out into the workforce and you get bosses of different styles, how are you going to cope with that? When you've only had one coach your entire life it's hard for them to adapt to new situations and that's one small part of it.

TNT: I spoke to one football coach who believed that his player didn’t receive scholarship offers because he was also a great wrestler and that college coaches didn’t know which he was committed to. I thought that was an interesting take on that because maybe it does hurt a kid’s chances in his primary sport?

Miller: I would disagree with that coach.

Colbrese: I would strongly disagree with that coach.

Miller: Because we listen to college coaches. And what they are telling us is that they want the multi-sport athletes. That is what they're looking for.

TNT: The WIAA has rules against both athletic transfers and recruiting at high schools, but just how dangerous are both to the future of high school sports? Is there a worry or troubling prevalence of each of those in the state?

Colbrese: I will make a generic statement and then let these guys weigh in. Because they are the leads on eligibility. But quite honestly, the fact that there is a recruitment issue and there is a transfer issue validates the fact that high school sports are important. That is a convoluted way of looking at it, but people wouldn’t be so aggressive if it weren't so important. And that's kind of convoluted way of looking at it but it is one way.

We had a committee that looked at recruitment this year and that committee needs to be reconstituted because recruitment is going to continue to be an issue.

TNT: And has it been an evolving issue?

Colbrese: It's getting different. I think if you were to visit anybody in the Metro League, we've already had two fact-finding missions go on and schools regarding tuition assistance and out-of-season contact and things like that. Which is another hot button. So I mean they are related.

In fact, the recruitment committee that met this last time felt that the only way to address recruitment was to make it more of a detriment to transfer. Well that didn't pass. So now we got look at it and say ‘OK, now what can we drill down further when it comes to recruitment?’

TNT: Have you seen more parents moving as programs become more known as football programs or basketball programs?

Colbrese: See I think that is more prevalent than recruitment. I think parents are making decisions much more than they used to.

Smith: I think we are seeing that parents see this as putting their chips all in at the poker table. This is their kid’s chance if he goes to this school. And they are following the rules. So if it’s within our rules, then what are we going to do?

Colbrese: And sometimes what we are finding out is that school administrators don't have the resources nor the time to track people who are unethical. Rumors are rampant. You read the blogs, we have Twitter. You hear that this kid did this and this kid did that.

Miller: So then the difference, however, when we talk about recruiting from some people's viewpoints — it's the coaches are out and trying to get these kids. When I talk about it, rather than recruiting, it's the accumulation of talent at certain programs. It may not have anything to do with the coach out getting kids. It may be the AAU coach is trying to keep all these kids together or a group of parents saying ‘I want my kids to be successful so I want you and you and you to come to my school so that my kids can be successful.’

So the accumulation of talent at schools is something that is a concern. The difference between the haves and the have-nots gets bigger. I personally think that is more of a concern now than it was 8 to 10 years ago. We are seeing more of it.

Colbrese: But I think it is more parent driven than it used to be.

Miller: It's more nonschool driven or community driven than it used to be.

Colbrese: And the issue comes down to the school having time to vet every single situation. That whole social-media animal can also be your watch dog. Because if your monitor that stuff, and some of us do, you can pick up stuff in there and maybe from there to make a phone call to see what's really going on.

Smith: We also make kids, if they are moving into an area, do a residence form or contract that basically says, ‘I swear that we actually live in this house and I swear the information I’ve given you is correct.’ Or the kid would lose eligibility if it’s found that we were lied to. And that takes it off of the school administrators.

TNT: But is going to a school for its football program really that bad? What is the big deal? You don’t hear about band members missing a year of eligibility because they moved to a school for its band program or math students banned a year because they moved to a school with a great math program. Or are there differences in those analogies?

Colbrese: I can tell you that it can get just as heated for other reasons in the fine arts. Not for the transfer issues or anything like that, but they have their own special issues. Copyright, whether the kid played that music last year. And all kinds of things

Smith: I can tell you, just from my experience, I have parents come in saying, ‘My kid just went from third chair to fourth chair and was displaced by a kid who doesn't even live in our school district.’ Yeah it can get pretty heated. This is my seat, this is where I should be, who are you to take my spot?’

And a lot of times when we hear issues on a kid moves in for sports, we hear the same things. It's about the displaced kid who says ‘I've had enough’ and the parent says ‘We've did all these things that the coaches asked for the last five years and we deserve a spot. And then all the sudden this kid who we know illegally transferred here is going to come in here and bump our kid out?’ So it’s not just sports.

Colbrese: And we see that sometimes and cheerleading too.

Miller: It's also become a very transient society. So just in one weekend a whole family can change residence. So if the whole family moves from here to here, they are now living in that service area and they are eligible. It's a lot easier for families to do that now if they don't own their own home.

Smith: We’ve had kids start at Beamer move to Federal Way and then back to Beamer and it's all within our rules because their family unit has moved from apartment to apartment

Miller: And we see that a lot with in the metropolitan areas.

Colbrese: What's the next iteration of the helicopter parent guys? I've heard of the stealth bomber.

TNT: What is the helicopter parent?

Colbrese: It's that parent who won't let the kid go. They hover over the coach and the kid.

Every February we get together with the post-secondary school community. We invite a representative of every athletic program from all of the colleges in Washington here and we had a conversation. You would not believe the stories that they would tell you about parents and how they are making it very difficult for college coaches to run their program. Why did my kid get this? Why is he sitting in this seat? And then playing time, and why did you not highlight him in the newspaper article, when this kid did this?

Smith: One of them I heard say that the helicopter parent has turned upside down and it’s now the lawnmower parents. They will just go right through you. So the blade had switched.

TNT: Are there programs you have for parents to educate them on what can be detrimental to their kids and what is healthy?

Colbrese: So Brian handles middle schools because we believe that that is the feeder program and that's a system that we need to get better at. And he is doing great job of that, and John is also working with the parent advisory committee that we have. It's interesting to hear what they have to say because quite honestly our best avenue to parents is through the local school, but a lot of times like when the helicopter turns upside down, and with a turnover in ADs — they don't have the time or the experience to slow them down.

Miller: And that's where we talk about the delineation between kids in the club sports program as opposed to the school sports program, which, quite honestly, the first introduction to most kids for sports is through club. So by the time that they get eighth, ninth, or 10th grade they kind of already have an idea of how programs are supposed to be run.

So they get to a school setting and they are like ‘Wait a minute, this is now how this is supposed to work? Oh and I've been coaching my kid for six years. Now I don't even have to say with the coaches?’

TNT: Do you monitor social media? And is it something you’ve had to monitor more now than you thought you would?

Colbrese: I think recruitment is just one of the areas that has made social media more interesting. I think that you got the sportsmanship thing where you got kids kind of going after each other from competing schools that can create an atmosphere that is not healthy during the ball game.

So it's more than just a recruiting issue. We certainly get more of it. Somebody will send us something saying ‘Well this is what I'm reading.’

The first thing I will do when I get an anonymous tip is we contact the school and we say ‘We just want to alert you, make sure that your I’s are dotted and your T’s crossed on this kid if he or she ends up at your school.’

Smith: Sometimes I read some of the social media things and you wonder if there’s really recruiting or if it's self-promotion. Because if a kid wants to have a platform and get attention and get something out there on Twitter that says ‘Look at me, I'm being recruited by Rainier Beach.’ Were you really being recruited? Or are you just trying to say you are so good that Rainier Beach is recruiting you?

I saw one where the kid said the private high school offered him a scholarship. And when I showed that to the school they were like, ‘What? Huh? No. You know we can’t do that?’ And I just tell them, ‘Here’s this student saying this and it gives you a black eye.’

I look at 90 percent of this stuff as them just trying to get attention. There are some that are blatant and we’ve seen those show up at eligibility hearings, for sure. But we get these sent to use quite frequently. It’s not like we are patrolling them all the time.

TNT: Will high school recruiting and transferring just always be an issue?

Colbrese: Well, you look at it from the perspective of how does the association move forward. Some that is driven by staff in concert with the board and with the rep assembly. And changes in the association rules are made on an annual basis. Those come from a member schools are they come from the board and that's because there is an annual review and dialogue about the kind of hot topics that we are talking about here. It's ‘Here's what is the issue is, how can we fix it? Can we fix it? And what are the consequences if we fix it?’

TNT: What about drugs and alcohol? How is the WIAA at keeping those out of high school sports?

Colbrese: I want to go back to this helicopter and lawnmower parent.

I had a student in here with me last spring. There are two rules that can be appealed if there is a violation by the student. They come directly to me. They don't go to a committee, they come directly to me. One of them is when somebody falsifies information to remain or get eligible. And the other is the drug and alcohol thing.

I had a kid who I had in here where he falsified information on his grades so that he would be eligible to pitch in a rotation because his family was going to be at that game and he did not want to let them down. And he has a mother who, she has got that lawnmower dialed down. You know how you can raise and lower the blade? This is about as low as you can get. Unbelievable. But that is the kind of thing that leads to.

I think that every school needs to have its policies on drugs and alcohol and (Miller and Smith) deal with it more regularly than I do – I only get the appeals – but they get the questions. Every school has to have a policy and appeals process and at certain levels it comes to me.

Smith: The athletic code at each school is going to vary a little bit. But every school that I have seen and worked with has developed policies that are now year round and not just during the season. I think our schools do a great job of that because it’s important for the integrity of their teams to make sure they are doing the right thing.

It is definitely out there. There is no doubt about that. Some of those things are just teenagers being teenagers. And that's not to make it sound OK, but this is the time for kids to learn.

As I’ve told parents who I’ve sat down with when kids got in trouble for being at a party or whatever, I would much rather have my 17-year-old get in trouble right now than as a 22-year-old who didn’t get it. Sometimes it's three weeks of the season that you're going to miss, but it’s a good time for them to learn and they are going to let down not just their parents – they're going to let down their team and their coaches and their community and that's a pretty painful lesson. So it's a good time for kids to be in trouble not that I encourage it.

Colbrese: Our job is to help create that safety net so that they get used to having it because they are not going to have it forever. We want them to develop healthy patterns because the net isn't there forever.

TNT: I think the last question I will end on is this – what are the most common misconceptions about the WIAA?

Smith: I would say that it’s that people think we’re this standalone office with a police-officer mentality. That’s not who we are. We work with the schools and the kids every day. I can't tell you how many times the phone rings and it's about us trying to help kids. That is what it's all about. Sometimes one kid might be out of line, but the rest of the kids, we’re trying to protect them, as well.

TNT: Do you feel the WIAA is sometimes viewed as the hammer that makes all of the decisions?

Miller: I think that's probably the biggest misconception the community has is that Mike makes all the rules and they will be enforced anyway that we want to. We will say we like you so you can do whatever you want but we don't like this school so we are going to hammer them all the time.

Smith: Yeah everybody in Eastern Washington, we are trying to put them in the worst position we can.

Miller: There isn't always the understanding that the schools make the rules. It’s our job to help the schools make and understand those rules. I think that is the biggest misconception.

Colbrese: And sometimes our schools put us in that position because they need us. We will protect the schools. Even when the school has had some issues, we still think it's not only our job to protect the kid but sometimes we have to protect the school.

Smith: I think our jobs are a lot different than most people think. I can look at our schedules for the next month and how many different service projects we are doing for schools and we're going to a league meeting to try to amend some arguments between schools and things like that. That's just like all the time. We do everything we can at every level for kids all the way to superintendents to make sure they are involved and have a say in things.

Colbrese: The only thing that I would add I think we have all said is that we are a service organization. But our responsibility is to provide service to our ownership and the ownership is the schools. And they get to make the rules. It’s our job to make sure they understand with the pratfalls might be with certain suggestions. Like when we went to the six-classification system, we told them that somebody was not going to be playing basketball in Spokane. It's our job to make sure and give them the lay of the land of what can happen. We are the ears, mostly but also the voice. We have to make sure the people are aware of all the issues so that when they take action – whether it is rep assembly or the executive board – they understand the issue. But there really is no separation between a member school and the WIAA. They just have a different role within it.

Those people who voted to change the basketball tournament – to change the current format – those were all school people. They did it after they got a lot of input from a lot of people around the state. That was a group. That was a group of people who are in your buildings every day.

Smith: I was an AD at the time (at Bellingham High School) and I know I had my say.

Colbrese: I am a service-oriented person. I hate conflict. Everybody hates conflict. But it is part of the job. It's how you handle it that makes the difference.