Rule changes

ON HIGH SCHOOLS

Heated debate

Opinions mixed over new summer-access policy

May 13, 2008|By MILTON KENT

A new interpretation of state athletic rules, designed to allow high school coaches to have more contact with their players during the summer, has split officials who have to enforce the rule right down the middle.

For Baltimore County athletics coordinator Ron Belinko, the new interpretation leaves too many unanswered questions, not the least of which is: Who will police the coaches? Greg LeGrand, his Anne Arundel County counterpart, also sees flaws, but thinks the opportunity for coaches to positively influence kids is too important to pass up.

"The one thing I keep going back to is, one of the biggest things education is going to teach us is adults should be modeling behavior," LeGrand said. "I don't care if they model behavior in or outside the classroom. I like the ability of my teachers, should they desire, to work with the kids if they want to."

At its April 25 meeting, the Maryland Public Secondary Schools Athletic Association's board of control - made up of coaches, principals, athletic directors and county coordinators - voted by a 27-21 margin to re-interpret how many athletes may play on an outside team that is overseen by a school coach.

As of the final state championships in three weeks, and until the start of fall practice in mid-August, a high school coach may have as many of the players on his/her summer team roster as they want. Previously, no more than 80 percent of the starting lineup for a particular sport could be on the same team that played out of their own season, meaning, for instance, that no more than four basketball players or eight lacrosse players or seven baseball players could be on the same out-of-season squad.

There are still significant restrictions. For instance, the so-called 80 percent rule is still in place for out-of-season teams during the school year, say, for fall baseball or basketball squads or indoor lacrosse teams that play in the fall and winter.

And the out-of-season team still may not use a name connected with the school, can't use that school's colors or equipment and has to play in a league that is sponsored by an educational or nonprofit organization at all times, summer or not. Also, the rule barring MPSSAA-connected coaches from sponsoring or conducting camps at any time remains in effect.

For years, the issue of permitting public school coaches to lead full teams in the summer has been a hot one (no pun intended). LeGrand said that in a number of surveys, state coaches usually lined up anywhere from 70 or 80 percent in favor of lifting summer restrictions, largely to help them to take back influence from club and Amateur Athletic Union coaches.

Measures to modify restrictions have come up again and again, only to be shot down by higher-ups in the educational food chain. Indeed, Belinko said he championed a plan a few years ago, only to see it rejected.

"They all thought I was crazy," Belinko said.

However, for last month's vote, proponents merely inserted time references into the interpretation of out-of-season teams, which required only an affirmative vote from the board of control, rather than changing bylaws, which would have necessitated more levels of approval.

Belinko said the new interpretation will force unanticipated, and in many cases, unwanted changes on players, coaches and parents. For one, he believes the out-of-season rule will reinforce an informal policy that has taken hold in athletics whereby the summer tryout becomes the de facto tryout for that sport, rather than the one that happens before that season starts.

"We're going to create something more restrictive because those teams are going to be all made before the season begins, and the youngsters aren't going to have a fair chance," Belinko said. "Right or wrong, that's going to be the perception out there. `He didn't play in your summer basketball league [team] and that's why he got cut.' It's going to be very hard to defend coaches unless they have a fair and open tryout."

LeGrand disagrees, saying that's mostly a perception of parents whose kids don't make teams.

"Do I think that's legitimate? Absolutely not," LeGrand said. "All the coaches have their own spots where they think, `Here's what I really think: Give me the 10 best athletes.' The other guy might say: `Give me the 10 best people that work together as a cohesive unit.' Whatever it is, I don't think that the amount of summer stuff that they do is going to change that coach's mind."

Belinko also thinks this change will force coaches, parents and students to alter their summer vacation plans, and will also essentially force kids who play more than one sport to pick the game they excel in and stick with that one, rather than sample another sport in the summer. He said he'd rather see a window, similar to the evaluation periods that NCAA coaches are limited to.

In the end, even though the rules give coordinators like himself leeway to interpret the changes as they see fit, even to make them more restrictive, Belinko said he will follow the new interpretation as it is written.

"My coaches would string me up," Belinko said. "I have no intention of being more restrictive, even though I'm talking about the minuses or the negatives. It's going to be my responsibility to spell it out. Here's the way it has to be run and hopefully, I won't have anybody violate it. I'm not going to hold Baltimore County schools back."

milton.kent@baltsun.com

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