No one looks good in the case of basketball prep star Thomas Kithier. Not the school who denied his transfer. Not the family who moved their son for “academic” reasons.
Not the state governing body that ruled to shut down Kithier’s high school basketball career last December when it determined he’d left Macomb Dakota for Clarkston for “athletically motivated” reasons.
Now, one of the best players in Michigan has to watch his senior season from the sidelines.
That’s too bad, because while he may be 6-feet-8, and he may be 18, he is still a kid, and kids rely on adults to guide them when life gets messy. And right now, high school basketball — and, to a lesser degree, football and wrestling — are getting messy.
Because of transfers.
A generation ago, all but the most elite prospects in high school basketball played — and stayed — in the school they entered as freshmen. These days, every kid with even a hint of talent is chasing a next-level dream. No matter how long the odds.
That has led to hundreds and hundreds of kids transferring every year. Almost of all of whom you never hear about.
Mostly because high schools are left to police themselves when it comes to whether or not the Michigan High School Athletic Association transfer rules are being violated. And its hard to imagine athletic directors and coaches fretting the loss of a back-up point guard.
The setup is similar to how the NCAA relies on universities to self-report its violations. So enforcement is random and uneven.
Even so, kids who leave for athletic reasons usually have to sit out at least a semester. And this doesn’t sit well with a growing number of parents, who want their kids to move freely without losing eligibility.
Nor does it sit well with Steve Fishman, one of the attorneys who represents Kithier.
“If a kid wants to change schools to get a better chance to play,to shine, to help get a scholarship,” said Fishman, who played basketball for Michigan back in the late 1960s. “I think he should have the right to do it.”
At its core, the issue of transfers centers on choice and freedom. At least if you’re on the side of parents and athletes.
These folks are generally backed by conservative politicians who favor school choice in general. In fact, last week, a republican state representative from Clarkston — Jim Tedder — tried to push a bill that would have allowed Kithier to play; it didn’t get far.
Part of this is psychological, and plays into the notion that parents know best. And if that means changing schools to help their child pursue their athletic dream? Well, so be it.
This societal change is at odds with most public-school educators, who see the rise in transfers as a threat to competitive balance and, to a degree, to stability and order. Many of these folks worry that by letting kids pick up and transfer without consequences we are teaching them to quit when life gets tough.
In the middle of the parents and schools is the Michigan High School Athletic Association, the governing body that represents the schools. The MHSAA may technically represent its member schools, but it feels the tug of what’s happening in the larger society.
One thing is certain: transfers are everywhere, and when Jack Roberts, the MHSAA’s director, recently met with his counterparts from all over the country at a meeting in Arizona, the dominant topic was … how to handle transfers.
“It’s an epidemic in high school sports,” said Roberts. “There was once a time when the big issue was public schools versus non-public schools.”
“The attitude is that if you don’t like the team you’re on, or how much you’re getting the ball, or what position you play, or your coach, or your offense … you move,” he said. “We are confronting the changed attitude in athletes and, I suppose, parents.”
Pointing fingers at the MHSAA
Roberts admits he doesn’t have hard numbers for athletically motivated transfers in Michigan.
“And,” he said, “maybe we should be criticized for that. But the issue is so obvious, you don’t need a survey. Any room you go into, you hear it.”
Whether that room includes principals or athletic directors or even Big Ten administrators, who blame the increasing number of college transfers on high schools, where, they say, kids learn to pick up and leave when they don’t like some aspect of the team or program for which they are playing.
“They point the finger at us,” said Roberts.
Particularly in basketball, where studies at the college level suggest 1 in 5 players will be on a different team from one year to the next. Roberts blames travel basketball and the AAU culture, where players routinely switch teams.
He also points to the increased mobility of society at large, and the evolving — or devolving, depending on your political view — nuclear family. All that flux gives kids options to move within a looser family structure.
Whatever the reasons, and there are many, the result has been an avalanche of movement between high school basketball teams in the state; Roberts said football and wrestling are the other two sports dealing with an inordinate amount of transfers.
In a vacuum, especially if you believe in school choice, this shouldn’t matter. Transferring for athletic reasons is no different than any other student who moves for any other reason: Advanced math classes. Theater. Band. Diversity.
That’s the view of Fishman, who helped the Kithier family file a lawsuit against the MHSAA to try to reverse the ruling that decreed him ineligible this winter, citing bullying and conspiracy between Macomb Dakota and the MHSAA — a judge ruled against them.
“(The judge) felt terrible she had to do this to the kid,” said Fishman. “The law is so awful.”
The MHSAA originally ruled Kithier ineligible on Dec. 7 when it found he violated what’s known as the “link rule,” which states that a player can’t transfer to a school where a relationship has been established within the last 12 months.
In Kithier’s case, he’d played with Clarkston guard, Foster Loyer, also an MSU signee, last summer on an AAU team. Kithier’s parents denied that their son’s move was athletically motivated, claiming they moved him for academic reasons.
That’s silly. Of course they wanted him at Clarkston to play basketball. That may not have been the only reason, but it was surely an important one.
Yet the family had to argue their motivation was about academics, because of the MHSAA’s rules. Some think that is silly, too.
Especially Fishman, who argues that kids who transfer for athletic reasons should be treated the same as kids who move for non-athletic ones.
“Why is this any different from a tuba player?” he said. “A science major? A chess guy? The point here is that this society is obsessed with athletics.”
Fishman doesn’t understand the double standard, and argues that if athletics had a proper place in society, this wouldn’t be an issue at all.
That’s true. That’s also life on some other planet.
After all, if sports occupied the same psychic space as say, physics do, then kids wouldn’t be transferring for athletic reasons in the first place. They’d be more content to find their way at their home school.
And wait their turn. Or figure out a way to connect with their coach. Or their teammates.
‘Sports are different’
Not all students who transfer do so because they can’t cope with their coach or teammates. Sometimes a kid gets stuck behind a handful of players who are simply better. If that kid has the talent to play at the college level somewhere, he deserves the chance to transfer.
And he can. As long as his school signs off on the move, and he’s willing to give up a semester of eligibility.
For the fall and spring sports, families and their student athletes are able to time it up so that they don’t miss any time on the field at all. For basketball — and other winter sports — this isn’t possible, as the season overlaps the semesters.
Fishman, and a lot of parents, would like to see this rule scrapped, and they want the MHSAA to adapt to a changing society. Roberts, meanwhile, said the schools themselves want even tougher rules, to curtail the number of transfers.
As for those who argue that student-athletes should be free to move as non-student athletes do? Roberts has an answer for them:
“We have to accept, as I do, that sports are different,” he said. “You have to have two teams playing by the same rules in order to have the same competition. That doesn’t happen in English and math. There may be some competition in non-athletic school events, but not like in sports.”
Aside from giving false hope to kids whose parents overestimate their child’s athletic ability, and teaching kids that quitting is acceptable, Roberts argues that allowing so many transfer students is tilting the playing field, where a handful of programs become recruiting magnets because of a coach or its facilities.
“The competitive disadvantage is real,” said Roberts. “It’s getting easier to predict who we are going to hand our trophies out to every year.”
In the coming months and years, as educators and athletic associations grapple with how to navigate all this movement, it’s possible the rules will temporarily toughen. It’s also possible that lawmakers at the state level could get involved with other ideas.
Meanwhile, the MSHAA remains somewhere in the muck, trying to navigate — not always successfully — the demands of folks with contradictory agendas, and trying to enforce a set of rules that get broken frequently. Justice has been uneven with it comes to transfers, and that’s a problem, too.
On the matter of Kithier, the MSHAA was technically right, even if it looks unreasonable to make him sit out both semesters. On the matter of everyone else?
Well, said Fishman, “I can’t see punishing every kid. If the MSHAA thinks screwing over Thomas Kithier will change high school athletics … that horse is way too far down the road.”
The numbers are on Fishman’s side. Short of a cultural shift — one that isn’t likely as the trend toward school choice has been building for decades — parents and their sports-playing kids are going to continue to chase whatever they think is their best option.
And that makes Roberts worry. Mostly for what is being lost.
“It’s hard to love all your coaches,” he said. “It’s hard to love all your teachers. In life, you’re not going to like all your bosses. There are teachable lessons (by staying).”
Besides, the college scholarship mystique is overrated. That can get lost on some parents. So can this:
“You’re much better off spending time in the library,” he said. “There is a lot more money out there for those who excel in that.”