In conversation with ... Julian Tackett, Commissioner of the KHSAA
In Conversation With…features an interview between a leader or figure involved in public education and a staff member of the Kentucky School Advocate.
This month’s conversation is with Julian Tackett, commissioner of the Kentucky High School Athletic Association, who discusses the group’s thinking process about issues such as adding new sports, shares information that might help school board members make better informed decisions relating to its athletic programs and what could be coming boards’ way if the state decides middle school sports need to better regulated.
Q. You have added some new sports in the past few years.
A. We call them sport activities. They’re not nearly as structured as the sports might be. We’re concerned with giving kids the opportunity to participate in a regional and state competition, but not necessarily have all the complications of it being a sport. Plus there’s one we don’t have jurisdiction to call a sport and that’s cheerleading.
We’ve added four sport activities (archery, bowling, bass fishing and cheer), whose competitions will be held this year. We’re excited because it gives a whole new group of kids an opportunity to represent their school in an official state competition, not just one someone titled a state championship. But, there’s not the expectation of a 16-week season and all these different things that coaches of things like softball, baseball and football have.
Q. What are the considerations for the KHSAA to add a sport or sport activity?
A. Every three years we survey the member high schools in the state and we start it out with the different things that are going on throughout the country and we ask them, ‘Are you competing in this? If you are, would you like us to manage a state championship in it?’
For many, many years the answer was always, ‘We don’t have that much interest.’ Then all of a sudden four years ago we had a significant spike in four activities, so we decided to take a look at it. Our baseline threshold is 10 percent (interest), although that doesn’t make it automatic because we also want it to be in at least three different regions of the state.
Q. Do you look at financial considerations when thinking about adding new activities?
A. No. 1, we have to worry about our financial issues because we can’t take on a loss. Second, our board is represented by all types of schools and all types of positions and they’re obviously concerned. The beauty of the three new activities is that they are virtually no cost. The archery in schools program was already established, bowling was already an established program and bass fishing was beginning to be established and it went from virtually no participation to 60 schools. This past spring it became apparent it was time.
We do look at everything, we look at travel because that affects how we put them in regions; we look at if there are hard-coded expenses. One of the things that we’ve learned over the last few years in adding these activities, there are a lot of naysayers out there who don’t want anything to change. So a great deal of our role is just troubleshooting misinformation. I had a newspaper guy tell me that all of the schools were going to have to buy a bass boat. We have not had a school in this state yet who does not have a faculty or staff member with access to a boat. A school buying a boat is just ridiculous. But there’s a fellowship of the miserable out there that just likes to shoot down ideas.
Q. You touched on your board of control. Can you discuss the membership, which is not primarily sports people.
A. We’ve got superintendents, principals, athletic directors, we have four people who are mandated not to be affiliated with schools. They help us look at the business aspect of things. We have a bigwig from UPS, we have a guy who owns his own companies in west Kentucky, we have a mother and parent of a high school athlete. We have just about every possible perspective. And a lot people are responsible either in their district or in their school for managing the dollars, so the financial aspect gets thoroughly reviewed before anything’s ever done. That’s why we didn’t add anything for so long, we didn’t have low-cost alternatives.
One of the things we did with the activities was to make them to where we’re focused on a region of the state, we’re not focused on two weeks of pre-season practice plus 14 weeks of play, like basketball. So the coaches in these types of activities cannot demand that kind of salary that the baseball and basketball coaches make, and maybe they don’t want to make that kind of commitment. It’s not that these activities aren’t as important, it’s just there’s not the same amount of expectation and work.
Everything we’ve studied, everything we’ve seen shows that the kids who participate get better grades, their attendance is better, their deportment – if I can use a really old-fashioned word – is better. They don’t want to come to school and face that coach, principal, AD, if they messed up. We’re just in a time when people say we can’t afford these things and I say we can’t afford not to. We need to have every kid involved.
And the really good thing about these new activities is that we’re not stealing from the soccer team, the baseball team, the basketball team. A lot of these kids have never play an organized activity in their life.
Cheer is a different thing, but the other three are going to get you students who don’t play in a whole lot of other things.
Q. Does this also help schools meet Title IX requirements?
A. While we have tried to be a leader nationally giving opportunities for women, making sure they can play sports, not every young lady in our state wants to play sports, just like not every male does. But if we can find them opportunities that do not discriminate based on gender – you know the bowling ball, you can use a different weight and it really doesn’t care if it’s thrown by a male or female. The fish for dang sure don’t care who baited the hook.
Frankly, I think the girls will excel in archery in the long run because of the concentration skills. It favors the prototypical differences in the genders. And again, it doesn’t matter if you’re a boy or a girl lining up that target. So these things give girls an opportunity to succeed in a way they might not have had before because of a fear of failure. They give boys the same opportunities, but I really think it’s going to help girls.
Q. A task force is looking at how middle school sports are governed and you’ve been a part of that. Can you talk about the recommendations that have been made and what needs to be done to keep those athletes safe?
A. You’ve got two totally different issues being studied. No. 1, it really is the wild, wild, West as far as, there are no regulations; there’s a very minimal amount of control and safety issues for the coaches. They’ve got to do safety training but there’s nobody to enforce that. They have certain other requirements that they have to meet, but no one is enforcing that.
So, who is going to enforce that? Is the state board of education, the department of education, are they going to designate somebody? That’s half the discussion.
The other half is, there are some common sense things that could be managed at the local level if they were required. For example, we had an eighth-grade basketball team play 52 games last year. It’s nearly double the limit older boys and girls can play. We had a full-contact football team play 19 games.
Sometimes what happens is, parent groups, school groups, become more than can be managed at the local level without the benefit of regulations. So I personally think what you’re going to see are requirements, maybe the local boards set policies in certain areas. Let them write them, but they’re going to have to address things like the number of games, like the fact that you shouldn’t be in full football gear in July when the senior high boys can’t do it because of the heat.
It doesn’t need to go overboard, but certainly some empowerment of local rules at the same time, some state rules, is probably a good mix.
Q. Eligibility is always a contentious issue. Can you talk a little bit about that decision-making process?
A. Our member schools develop all of our rules. We don’t just sit here on high and make rules. Our rules changes and the rules themselves start with a vote by the schools, a two-thirds vote I might add. So, obviously they’ve been vetted throughout the state and ideally people have looked at the impact, pros and cons. And we try to write them in such a way that they’re easy to understand. The problem is, that’s very difficult to do because the first time you tell someone no, they’re going to run off to court and then the lawyers want it written just so. And there’s a tough balance between what is common sense and good for kids and what’s got the right commas and semicolons in it.
In the last three year, our mission and direction has purposely shifted a little bit: When in doubt, the kid’s going to play. Somebody has to prove to me that someone shouldn’t be playing. We have a lot of people in this state who spend a lot of their time whining about who gets trophies. I don’t care who gets trophies. If we value participation in interscholastic sports … and we know it gets better grades, and we know it gets better attendance, then why are we looking for reasons to tell kids no? The default needs to be yes.
If school A thinks school B is doing something wrong, put your name to it, write it down, tell us what’s going on, we’ll follow up. The problem is, very few people want to do that. We’re not an enforcement agency. We apply rules, so if someone tells us there’s a violation and we can verify it, then we’re going to apply the penalty that rule calls for. But this is not an enforcement agency, we don’t have a bunch of investigators. The schools have to police each other and they have to be willing to do that.
Q. Is there anything you think school board members should know, anything coming up that they should be aware of?
A. They have to understand that in this day and time, an athletic program done correctly is not cheap, and they’ve got to make sure that the best people are in place to oversee those programs. Every (high) school should have both an athletic director and a certified trainer and they would have a lot less worries, the school board would have a lot less worries. They have to understand that they’re making a commitment to health and safety for these students for a one- to four-year period, and that’s not free.
The days of ads in the programs and signs in the outfield are drying up. These boards are going to be asked to make some really tough decisions, and I know that they know not to take two football trips when you need to buy new math books. But working together I think we can realize that athletics is the other half of education and it’s a very important part of it and we need to keep it going the way it is. Because what will happen if we don’t is that we’ll create an elitist society within athletics and only those who can afford to pay the $1,500 to send their kid to a cheerleading competition, or $1,000 to go to baseball camp are the only ones who will get to play. And the kids who we really, really need to engage, who can’t afford that, will be out.