By: Mark Stewart, Milwaukee Journal Sentinel | April 13, 2019
What a difference a year makes.
Last year at the WIAA annual meeting, the discussion focused on beefing up its athlete code of conduct, the adoption of football-only conferences and the revamping of its conference realignment procedures.
Today the WIAA has put in place new procedures for conference realignment. The state’s governing body for high school sports is also on the verge of adopting a stronger code of conduct and getting final approval for a football-only conference plan.
The big question heading into this year’s annual meeting, which is scheduled for Wednesday in Stevens Point, is tried and true when it comes to creating conversation: transfers.
On the agenda is an amendment that would make ineligible from varsity competition for one year students who transfer to a school where there is a pre-existing athletic relationship with anyone at the school.
The amendment would supersede the portion of the current transfer rule that grants immediate eligibility to a student whose family makes a full and complete move into a new district.
“What you’re getting is super teams and they’re getting stacked…,” WIAA deputy director Wade Labecki told the Board of the Control last month. “In basketball, it seems to be becoming very prevalent. This is a deterrent to tell them that if you want to be with your buddies on the AAU team during the (high school) season, you’re going to sit for a year.”
Basketball transfers draw attention
Some administrators have dubbed the amendment the Nicolet Rule due to the high-profile transfers last summer of Jalen Johnson, who is one of the nation’s top basketball players in the 2020 class, and his brother Kobe, a talented sophomore, from Sun Prairie to Nicolet. Labecki, however, also told the board that basketball transfers at La Crosse Central and Wauwatosa West were part of the trend. All those transfers met WIAA rules.
The Johnsons were two of four transfers into Nicolet who were part of the Phenom University club program. The Johnsons, sophomore James Graham, former of University School, and Jamari Sibley, a Phenom player who was already a student Nicolet, helped the Knights win the Division 2 state title and claim the No. 8 ranking in USA Today’s rankings. Another Phenom player, former New Berlin West standout Desmond Polk, a member of the 2020 class, was denied immediate eligibility at Nicolet last summer and is attending La Lumiere Prep in Indiana.
All the players are Division I prospects.
“We are trying to point out this trend will only get worse as it has in other states,” WIAA executive director Dave Anderson told the board of control. “It is a very important conversation for our membership to have.”
The amendment needs only a simple majority of votes at the annual meeting to pass. If it passes, it would take effect with any new transfers following the publication of the WIAA’s May bulletin.
What is a pre-existing relationship?
According to the language in the amendment, a pre-existing relationship includes but is not limited to the following examples: 1, The student was involved in a non-school or school activity that was coached or directed by a coach, administrator or parent at the new school; 2, The student received private skill instruction by a coach, administrator or parent at the new school; 3. The student attended a summer contact session at the new school; 4. The student was involved in summer athletic activities with a coach, administrator, parent, and/or athlete of the new school before attending that school.
The amendment would only consider the contact that occurred after a student began high school. It would take effect for all sports.
The proposal has left athletic directors with a number of questions. At the top of the list is enforcement.
“How are they going to prove what is a relationship that is making the transfer happen,” Milwaukee South boys basketball coach and athletic director Ty Moseler said. “Where are they drawing the line? How is Wade Labecki going to be able to determine what was a previous relationship that mattered and what was one that didn’t? So many of these kids played together on so many different teams growing up and know each other and know each other’s people.”
There is also a concern with the role the athletic director will play in vetting what their transfer students tell them. Labecki said during the last board meeting that a question would be added to the transfer form that asks the student if there are any pre-existing relationship at the new school.
“I think deep down people want to follow rules and will follow rules, but if (the athletic directors) don’t have all the information, they could be violating and not even know it,” DSHA athletic director Peggy Seegers-Braun said. “So then what happens? If you asked the question and didn’t get a truthful answer then are you still in violation? That’s the scary part as an administrator.”
At a Wisconsin Athletic Director’s Association meeting Wednesday, president-elect Todd Sobrilsky said some of the ADs questioned whether it was fair to prevent a student from participating in athletics if that person’s family makes a total move into that community. There was also some question about how necessary is a rule change at this point.
“Most ADs understand what’s happened and why we’re attempting to figure out how to prevent it from happening again, but I don’t think the system was broken,” Sobrilsky said. “If you think there is one or two or three schools out of 500 that are doing something wrong we don’t really need to pass a rule for the other 498 of us.”