September 17, 2013 10:15:46 AM
Andrew Mackin hopes neither his son nor any other players or coaches in the state of Mississippi have to make a decision they could be forced to make.
If the Mississippi High School Activities Association has its way, a change in the wording and in the interpretation of the 50-percent rule that governs the number of players that can play on an independent team and be eligible for their high school team would limit those players to one team during the school year.
"Common sense dictates we should be optimistic," Mackin said. "It is a really bad rule, and it is a rally bad interpretation of the rule. Anyone who stands back and looks at it should think they have to be crazy, but when it comes to the MHSAA, as far as I am concerned, the way they have responded so far, common sense doesn't apply."
For the 2012-2013 school year, the MHSAA's 50-percent rule read, "During the school's sports seasons an independent team can be made up of no more than 50% (sic) of the number that make up the starting number of players for that sport from any one school. The penalty for this violation is the loss of eligibility of all participants from the school that participated on the team. School personnel cannot coach an independent team during the school year. NOTE: Only 4 players per school may participate on a baseball or fast pitch softball team, 2 basketball players, 5 soccer or slow pitch players, etc. Exception: five starters in soccer must be identified by the coach.
Independent teams may participate in summer league post season (sic) play through August."
According to Rickey Neaves, associate director of the MHSAA, the rule was changed after it went through a district meeting and two votes at the MHSAA Executive Council and MHSAA Executive Board levels. The final vote came in February and the new rule went into effect Aug. 1. It now reads (italics indicates portion of change), "During the school's sports seasons an independent team can be made up of no more than 50% of the number that make up the starting number of players for that sport from any one school. The penalty for this violation is the loss of eligibility of all participants from the school that participated on the team. School personnel cannot coach an independent team during the school year. NOTE: Only 4 players per school may participate on a baseball or fast pitch softball team, 2 basketball players, 5 soccer or slow pitch players, etc. Independent teams may participate in summer league post-season play through August." (i.e. independent team ... to include club team, recreational team, select team, elite team, all-star team). Applies to grades nine through twelve during the school year. Note: does not apply to grades seven and eight (grades seven and eight will be under the total control of the administration and coaches of a particular middle school).
Mackin and his son, Ben, are two of 32 people involved in a lawsuit against the MHSAA that seeks to prevent the state's governing body of high school sports from potentially restricting the ability of the players to play on a club team and to be a member of their high school squads. Four of the players involved in the lawsuit are from Tupelo High School, while the other 12 are from Starkville High.
The lawsuit, which was filed last week, was moved Thursday into U.S. District Court. On Monday, The Tupelo Daily Journal reported Senior U.S. District Judge Glen H. Davidson removed himself as the presider over the lawsuit in the Northern District of Mississippi. The story said Davidson gave no reason for recusing himself from the case. It also said the federal court's clerk will reassign the case.
Originally, the parties were scheduled for a hearing today in New Albany regarding a temporary restraining order. The Daily Journal reported that hearing was canceled due to a jurisdiction change.
Ben Alford and Deanna Alford, Tanner Scoville and Jeff Scoville, Boston Hampton and Eric Hampton, Val Lawson and Gregory Lawson are from Tupelo High. Arman Borazjani and Abdolsamad Borazjani, D'Antae Bush and Daphne Bush, Connor Dunne and James Dunne, Michael Godley and Randall Godley, Caleb Gwaltney and Steve Gwaltney, Luke Josey and Joel Dell Josey, Christian Kingery and Rachel Kingery, Daniel Luck and Rogelio Luck, Ben Mackin and Andrew Mackin, Alex Ross and Matt Ross, Michael Sullivan and Barry Sullivan, and Rylan Moore and David Ray Moore are from Starkville High.
Tupelo attorneys Mark Halbert and J. Andrews Hughes are representing the plaintiffs.
Neaves said Monday the MHSAA removed the exception for soccer to bring it line with all of the other sports it oversees. He said the 50-percent rule was first put into the MHSAA handbook in 1999. He said an exception was given to soccer in 2006. His hope is that the issue is resolved before the beginning of the season. He said it would difficult for the sides to reach a compromise because it would be "hard" to go against what has been voted on. Practice begins Monday, Oct. 21, for the 2013-14 season.
"I do appreciate the fact we have people who are passionate about their sports," Neaves said. "I have great respect for that, but we have a process that has been in place since the beginning of this association, and we do serve all sports and not just one. Sometimes that causes a conflict. I am hoping this can be resolved through our process and both parties can be satisfied."
Mackin, whose son is a junior at Starkville High, said the players involved in the lawsuit are like many throughout the state who aspire to play the sport in college. To do that, he said, it is imperative that they play club, or select, soccer, which exposes them to a higher level of play. College coaches typically spend most, if not all, of their recruiting time following club soccer teams.
But Mackin also said players who play select or recreational soccer shouldn't be forced to choose where they play. He said coaches also shouldn't be forced to select a handful of players and then cut the other players from the high school squad because of a pre-determined number.
Many of the players from Starkville also play on the state champion Under-17 Region III club team that is part of the Central Premier League, which is made up of the top teams from the states of Louisiana, Arkansas, Mississippi, Tennessee, and Alabama. The league is run by U.S. Youth Soccer. The Starkville club is scheduled to play Central Premier League games against teams from Arkansas on Saturday and Sunday in Jackson.
Mackin said the rule change would significantly impact cities like Tupelo, Starkville, Hattiesburg, and Meridian, which have only one or a few club teams. He said it is unreasonable to ask players to drive long distances several times a week to play for another club in an effort to satisfy a rule.
"We don't want to abandon high school soccer," Mackin said. "For them to be successful, they have to play club soccer during the high school year. The change in interpretation of the rule is what is killing us."
Kay Bouler, executive director of operations for the Mississippi Soccer Association, said the MHSAA is "very much against" the new wording because it would affect a vast majority of the nearly 9,000 high school age players who are affiliated with it.
"By limiting the number of players to five, the MHSAA has effectively made it very difficult for players to participate in recreation leagues as well as the select teams outside of high school," Bouler said. "I don't think people realize this also would affect those kids don't even play high school by forcing the others to choose between high school or a recreational team. Some organizations are so small now that they don't have enough players to form a U-16 girls team.
"Over the last 10 years Mississippi Soccer has grown tremendously. I can see this setting us back to almost where we were 10 years ago."
Still, Bouler is optimistic. She hopes the MHSAA will offer a "good compromise" everyone can live with. She feels it is "obvious" kids should be allowed to play soccer on different teams outside the high school season. She believes the final decision will be made in a court room.
"From everything I have read and or heard from the MHSAA it seems to be taking a stand, and it's a shame," said Bouler, who has heard people from Hattiesburg, Madison, Meridian, and the Gulf Coast are considering legal action against the MHSAA.
Mackin said he and the players and parents from Starkville trust the judgment of their lawyer, who he said is the parent of one of the players involved in the lawsuit. He said the next step will be to see what happens and then make a decision.
"We don't want to choose," Mackin said. "If we have to choose, I think they would choose club soccer, which would decimate the Starkville High School team because it would stop kids from playing for their high school when they really want to. They shouldn't have to choose."
Adam Minichino is the Sports Editor for The Commercial Dispatch.