In the name of fairness, unlimited travel for state teams isn't all it's cracked up to be

On High Schools

High Schools

April 29, 2005

BREAK OUT THOSE travel atlases and the suntan oil, and get ready to fuel up the jets: Maryland high school teams will be hitting the skies to showcase their talents.

That is, if a proposal to lift a state-imposed, 600-mile roundtrip restriction on athletic trips clears two remaining hurdles, effectively allowing Maryland kids to engage in nationwide competition.

But, for Ron Belinko, Baltimore County's coordinator of athletics, staying close to home isn't such a bad thing.

"Do we have to go all over the place for the competition that these people are seeking or is it here within our present structure?" said Belinko. "In certain sports, you don't have to go further than the next county or the city or even a neighboring state for competition. I just think it's counterproductive of the educational system and interscholastic athletics."

After voting down a proposal to lift a longstanding ban on nationwide travel last December, the Maryland Public Secondary Schools Athletic Association's Board of Control approved a similar plan last weekend at a meeting in Ocean City.

The plan, which squeaked through by a 26-23 vote, still must pass muster with school superintendents and eventually the state board of education, meaning that it will likely be at least a year before the travel ban is lifted.

At first blush, it appears to make sense that school athletic teams should be allowed to go outside the 300-mile radius that the 600-mile rule enforces.

Practically speaking, such a restriction keeps Central Maryland teams boxed in an area from roughly North Carolina to the south, New York to the north and eastern Ohio to the west. When schools from other states can crisscross the country for games, keeping Maryland students at home, essentially, seems antiquated.

No school has felt more boxed in than Dunbar, whose boys basketball team used to go to Hawaii for games, but has been largely parked in East Baltimore since city schools joined the MPSSAA in 1993. The Poets, who have won three straight state titles, have become kings of high school basketball in Maryland, but it's a considerably narrow kingdom.

"In my opinion, moving to states has crippled Dunbar," said David Lewis, a former Poets basketball player who is now an assistant elementary school principal. "It may have enhanced other programs, but Dunbar is a national power school. To beat the best, you have to play the best. If you can't go to the top national tournaments, i.e., the Great Alaska Shootout or the Maui Classic, you'll never get a chance to find on the barometer where you measure up."

But if Belinko, who voted against the proposal, has his way, teams will have to keep looking for their inner bliss a lot closer to home.

"We don't have to go any farther than 10 miles to get the best competition in the country. We're right there," said Belinko. "It's right there in our backyard. If I want competition for our basketball teams, I'll send them to Dunbar. I don't have to send them to California."

At a time when school administrators are under increasingly tougher mandates to increase test scores, how, Belinko wonders, can we talk seriously about diverting funds that could be used in the classroom to, instead, send kids out around the country to play games?

Speaking of money, Belinko said he is concerned that a total relaxation of restrictions will only continue a war of "haves" and "have-nots" in his county, where wealthy schools will consistently raise money for their teams to travel while the poorer schools stay home and become resentful of their richer neighbors.

"What we're going to establish, and I'm speaking strictly of Baltimore County schools, that the more affluent areas are going to be able to raise money to send kids down to Disney World during the holidays while the non-affluent areas won't have the means to do it," said Belinko.

And none of the discussion to this point about money includes Title IX considerations. A school system that gives its stamp of approval for boys to travel around the country would almost certainly have to facilitate the same arrangement for girls to keep in compliance with Title IX.

That just means more money, more money, more money.

It's interesting to note that while Baltimore City voted in favor of relaxing the restrictions, the other area school systems, all suburban-based, voted against the proposals, perhaps fearing the onset of a battle between schools along demographic, gender and economic lines.

Perhaps a compromise could be struck, where the actual number of miles is relaxed from a 600-mile roundtrip journey to, say, 1,000. Or, rather than allowing unfettered team travel, a new rule permitting a long distance trip once in a two-year span could be enacted. That way, no one school's team would travel more than another school's and each school could take time to raise money.

Belinko believes that some ground could be struck by allowing all Maryland public schools to begin counting their 600miles from any state border, meaning, for instance, if an Eastern Shore school wanted to go west for a game, its trip would start at the Garrett County-West Virginia line.

At any rate, it seems there are many miles to go before any Maryland public school team makes a long run past the border.

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