The Wheeler High School boys basketball team will now be allowed to compete for a national championship.
A rule dating back to 1979 had blocked any high school team in Georgia from competing or practicing after the state championship in its sport.
After a social media outcry and online petition, the Georgia High School Sports Association ruled on Wednesday that the team would be allowed to make the trip to the DICK’S Nationals in New York in early April.
“I think it’s great to have the opportunity to represent the state and your community and your high school and your area,” Wheeler coach Doug Lipscomb said. “I am glad the GHSA did say you guys can go and compete. Some of these kids have not been to Ground Zero. That’s what I want them to see while I am there. Every event we go to, I want to make it educational.”
Wheeler, the Georgia 6A champion, had been invited based on its position in the USA TODAY High School Sports’ Super 25. Wheeler moved up to No. 6 in the latest rankings.
Wheeler had appealed the ruling but was denied.
Chuck Martin, a state representative who represents the 49th district, found out about Wheeler’s plight on Wednesday morning and gave a speech before the Georgia House of Representatives supporting the Wildcats’ cause. Later, he said he spoke with Gary Phillips, the executive director of the Georgia High School Association.
“I am happy it worked out,” Martin said. “We passed a law in 2005 or 2006, when Sean Bailey, the son of former Georgia player Stacey Bailey, wasn’t allowed to play in the U.S. Army All-America Bowl in San Antonio. We don’t regulate the GHSA because it is a private group, but the law said that any state association couldn’t prevent kids from participating in these types of events.
“I asked Gary, is a team not made up of individuals? If they weren’t breaking the spirit of the law, they were not following the spirit of it. That type of decision should be up to the local school board.”
Rashid Ghazi of Paragon Marketing, which is organizing the event, said he had not heard anything official about Wheeler as of Wednesday evening but the decision on whether a school is eligible to participate comes from its state association.
“If reports are true, we are excited that Wheeler will have the opportunity to participate in the DICKS’ Nationals. Their presence will add to the depth of an outstanding field and we think they will do a tremendous job representing the state of Georgia. As far as teams that belong to state associations, the ones who want to play have been calling us, not the other way around. We have tremendous respect for the state associations and work with a number of them. We think they do good work across the country, have the best interests of the students at heart and have begun to recognize the importance of the event.”
Ghazi said that it’s up to the schools to show state associations how the teams will benefit more than just from playing basketball at the DICK’S Sporting Goods Nationals.
“Other schools that have participated have provided good testimonials about the educational experience,” Ghazi said. “All of these (social media) campaigns have been driven by the schools. It’s incumbent on the schools to work with the state association. In the case of Wheeler and Myers Park and Callaway, all of those teams have asked their state associations. This event is a new challenge many state associations are facing. They have bylaws in place that were set 10-15 years ago. They have choices to make that don’t just impact one sport, but several sports.”