Rules can bend to set things straight


November 20, 2007|By MILTON KENT

Don't tell anyone, but the Maryland Public Secondary Schools Athletic Association really does have a heart.

It's easy, and in some cases convenient, to think of the MPSSAA, the state's version of the NCAA, as the organization that can't say yes, particularly to things that might show sympathy to potentially aggrieved parties, be they athletes or coaches or both.

But there are rare moments when the rules can be bent to make just one person happy.

The most recent recipient of the MPSSAA's generosity is Reservoir volleyball player Tiffany Jacobson, who almost surely would not have played in Saturday's Class 3A state championship match against Huntingtown if not for the compassion of the MPSSAA and its volleyball committee. The flexibility of the 4A state semifinalists also played a role in the change, as did an act of vandalism.

Jacobson, a 6-foot-4 junior, is a setter for the top-ranked and undefeated Gators, who won the school's first state title in any sport. Jacobson, a Seventh-day Adventist, would have sat out the title match, which was originally scheduled for 2:30 p.m. Saturday, because it fell during her religion's Sabbath, which is observed from sunset Friday to sunset Saturday.

"It's rare that you have a child that's in this position, because nowadays, there's not that much of a religious practice," Reservoir coach Carole Ferrante said in October. "But it's great to see that her family has such strong religious beliefs."

What Jacobson needed was for the 3A championship to be swapped with the 4A match, which was scheduled for 7:30 p.m. at Ritchie Coliseum in College Park, the site of the four state finals.

Ned Sparks, the longtime executive director of the MPSSAA, said the organization got its first formal request from Reservoir officials after the Gators had won their region the previous weekend to advance to the state semifinals. Sparks said his initial reaction was to leave things as they were, given all the changes that would have to be made to pull it off, plus his belief that making the move could set off an uproar.

However, when two state field hockey finals had to be shifted to South River on Nov. 12 after vandals set fire to Broadneck's turf field, Sparks said the organization realized that it could facilitate last-minute changes if need be, provided all concerned parties agreed.

Sparks said the MPSSAA approached the 1A semifinalists about changing their match, which was scheduled for 5 p.m. Saturday, but an assistant coach on one of the teams was going to be out of town attending a youth conference and wasn't due to arrive back at Dulles International Airport in Northern Virginia until 2:30 p.m., the time to which the match would have been moved, so that change wasn't feasible.

From there, the principals at the schools of the 4A semifinalists were asked whether there were any compelling reasons that their schools couldn't swap the match time with that of the 3A participants.

"By the time we heard back from them, nobody really had a good reason, or no one thought there was a problem that they would have changing the time," Sparks said. "A couple of people even said, `If we make it that far, we don't care when we play.'"

Sparks said he was surprised that no one objected, but when no one did, the switch was on. But don't think for a moment that he hasn't thought of the question that flows from this.

"That's a sensitive one, the religious issue. We're not talking about, well, the kids had a conflict with band competition, or they had a conflict with something else," Sparks said.

"You can't in an association with 110,000 kids participating accommodate everyone, We try to remain religion-neutral, but this was a legitimate request. We'll ask the question: Now, where do you draw the line? Obviously, if this was a football game scheduled for M&T Bank Stadium and you're expecting several thousand people and the wheels are in motion, buses have been chartered and so forth, that may be a bigger deal. I'm not denigrating volleyball, but it's an easier thing to do and to make that kind of change."

In other words, just because the MPSSAA has learned to say yes, don't expect it to wear the privilege out.

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