Bobby Cox, 59, is going into his sixth year as the commissioner of the Indiana High School Athletic Association. IndyStar’s Kyle Neddenriep caught up with Cox this week – as the 2016-17 high school fall seasons begin – to discuss some of the key issues facing the IHSAA (some answers have been condensed for space):
Question:The future of football is a hot topic as awareness has been raised over the seriousness of concussions and traumatic brain injuries. How do you assess the health of the high school game in Indiana?
Answer: What I would tell you is I think the high school game is safer than it’s ever been in its history. We have a heightened awareness. Schools are taking kids in and having baseline testing done. When they reflect concussive symptoms, they are taken out of the game and examined. Then they are brought back into the lab and given another test. They are establishing return to play protocols. I think that’s good for football. The equipment is better, the awareness is better, the technique is better, the education is better than it’s ever been. Our attendance is continuing to go up and we’re adding more teams. But having said that, we need to continue to do our diligence on these health and safety issues. As long as we do that, I think we’re in really good shape.”
Q: This will be the fourth year of the IHSAA’s tournament success factor (schools move up in class based on a previous two-year period of success). Do you think it’s been successful?
A: This year we’ll be hiring a research intern and they are going to research every game, regular season and tournament, and look at the scores and score differentials. We’ll look at our tournament, new sectional champions, repeat sectional champions, attendance at the state finals and compare and contrast it from when we instituted the success factor. It’s going to be a large project, but I’m hoping to find some statistical data that will show us one way or another whether it’s working. Anecdotally, it’s working. We have more first-time teams in the state finals than we’ve ever had. But we need statistics to back that up so we can make an objective evaluation.
Q: Has it addressed the public-private issue?
A: At the end of the day, every member school – public, private, Class 6A, Class A – what they want is fairness. It’s not about public-private, it’s about fairness. When they sense it’s not fair, that’s when you have consternation. Since we’ve done this (tournament success factor), the conversation of public vs. private has dampened dramatically. I don’t hear as much of it anymore. There are state (associations) about to be taken over by legislatures because of this problem – Florida is in trouble, Louisiana is in trouble. We addressed it early on with the success factor and applied it to the entire membership. I feel good about it. I’m excited to get this research person hired and get them started on this project. I’ve spoken to four other board of directors (in other states) about what we’re doing. Everybody is looking for a solution and I said when we started that there is no solution. That’s why it’s competition. So what you do is to try to get some level of fairness. That’s what we’re striving for.
Q: This winter will mark the 20th season since the IHSAA went to a four-class basketball tournament. There have been a few proposals over the years to change the tournament and a town hall series a few years ago to assess interest in a return to a single-class tourney. Do you see any changes on the horizon to the basketball tourney?
A: When we did that town hall series, one of the things senator (Mike) Delph asked me to do was survey the kids. When we did that, 90 percent of our student-athletes were in favor of what we’re doing (a four-class tourney). At the end of the day, who is our customer? The student-athlete are the ones we’re creating opportunities for. That’s what they want, so that’s what we should be doing. There’s nothing out there that I’m aware of that would speak to wanting the class system altered.
Q: The Ben Davis-Pike girls basketball fight resulted in the IHSAA suspending both teams for the remainder of last season. That’s two years in a row the IHSAA has suspended entire teams for an on-court fight. Do those decisions set a precedent?
A: I will tell you that the association has zero tolerance for fighting in contests. Every contest is looked at individually. There have been fights where there haven’t been total suspensions or withdraws from tournaments. But any of those kinds of incidents are taken very seriously. After the incident with Pike and Ben Davis, both schools did a great job working with parents and kids to illustrate how serious the issue was and what they needed to do to move forward. I wish I could sit here and tell you it’s not going to happen again. But high school sports are emotional and sometimes that emotion overrides good judgment. I’ve always said my fear – and I hope to God it never happens – is that somebody is going to take the issue into their hands. I know there was a gun in a gymnasium last year. I know there are weapons in our gyms. We’re not metal detecting every gym. We’re going to have one of these incidents some day and some fan, some parent, some observer is going to take out a weapon and we’ll have a catastrophic event. That’s why we’ve handled these (fights) so severely. There’s no tolerance for it. If you want to play in our organization and in our tournament, you’re going to behave properly. If you don’t, we’re going to take you out of it. If that’s not enough of a deterrent, I’m not sure what is other than playing a game with no fans. It would be awful if we go to that point. But you’ve got to control yourself. We’re going to take a hard stand. If I had to do it over again, I’d do the same thing.
Q: There was a proposal to formalize the procedure and guidelines relating to school suspensions for in-game fighting. It was voted down. Will the process change at all?
A: We have a due process. I don’t think many of our members study their bylaws carefully enough to examine the due process that is afforded to them. I don’t think we need to change our due process, but maybe we need to change how we arrive at a decision. The only thing I’d change is when these schools come in the office I need to ask, ‘What are you going to do about it? Are you going to suspend your team or take your team out of the tournament?’ Put it back on them. It’s their kids and their responsibility by rule. And then based on what they commit to, I may supplement a punishment, go with what they suggest or cut some of it out. That’s the only thing I’d change.
Q: I’ve heard from some veteran coaches who feel parental involvement has made their jobs more difficult than it was five or 10 years ago. Is there a concern that is driving good coaches away?
A: There’s a sense of entitlement. This comes from youth sports. You pay your $600 to put junior in soccer league and you’re expecting a return. You do that all the way to scholastic events and all of a sudden, the coach is going to tell you what happens. Parents don’t like that. That becomes an issue. It’s driving coaches away. It’s driving athletic directors away. There’s a more global concern to the level of superintendents. Schools are spending a lot of money on capital improvements of facilities. For what? A headache every Monday morning? There are some superintendents who say we ought to let clubs take it over; we don’t need this aggravation. But those superintendents don’t understand the lessons kids are learning from participation in school-based athletics. We have to do a better job of telling that story. We’re making assumptions that everybody knows it, but we’re getting individuals in leadership positions who haven’t experienced it. We need to help them understand why it’s important that we continue those programs.
Q: How do you hope the public perceives you as the IHSAA commissioner?
A: I hope people look at the work we’ve done here while I’ve been commissioner and see that we’ve attempted to be fair. That we’ve been receptive to ideas and that we’ve listened and acted in good faith. I think any job you take, you try to go in with the attitude that you’re going to make it better. I think we’ve made improvements. But you can’t sit back and rest. We’re going to keep pushing and we’re going to change things. When I get to the point where I don’t have the energy to make change, it’s time for me to do something else. I want to be known as somebody who is innovative and challenged the norm. Somebody who has tried to improve and make things better for kids and the member schools. If I can accomplish that, I’ll be happy. But we still have a lot to do. Retirement is not out there for me now.”
Call IndyStar reporter Kyle Neddenriep at (317) 444-6649.