Iowa legislature needs to continue eligibility debate

Sunday, April 24, 2011

It's an issue that's been a source of contention long before I moved to Iowa in late 2008.

And now, if Sen. Randy Feenstra (R-Hull) has any say, Iowa's lax rule that renders transfer students eligible to compete in varsity athletics a mere 90 school days after transferring schools could become a thing of the past.

Feenstra introduced a bill in January that would extend the ineligibility period to 180 days, or an entire school year. Iowa is one of just a handful of states that requires transfers to sit out just 90 days, or one semester, and many feel that schools and athletes are taking advantage of the situation.

"Both the girls athletic (union) and the boys (association) are very supportive of the bill," Feenstra said. "They both said it's time that this has to happen...It's really causing a lot of heartache for a lot of schools."

Right now, the bill is waiting for floor debate. Feenstra said it could get to the floor this year, but more likely will come up next year.

If it passes, it would likely discourage athletes from transferring simply for athletic reasons, which is becoming a more common issue, according to Dave Anderson of the IHSAA, who told the Associated Press as much in a January article.

"You can have coaches work all year to try and make it to state, and yet there might be one school out there that is getting players from another district coming to that school," Feenstra said. "Then, what do you tell your team? What do you tell your players? 'It's been great playing but you know what, we'll never beat this team.'"

That said, the schools benefiting by gaining transfers from the 90-day rule are not to blame. Those schools are simply working within the context of the rule. But the rule enables this dubious process and the rule ought to be changed.

This has become a point of contention for fans and athletes at Le Mars Community, which hasn't been to the state tournament in basketball since 2000.

"That's not to say that teams that have had kids transfer in haven't had legitimate reasons," said Le Mars boys basketball coach Dave Irwin. "But I think what (the proposed rule) does for a lot of schools, is maybe keep things level.

"I don't mind the tradition that Iowa has, but I'd like to see them try to stop some of this," Irwin added. "The only reason it's become an issue is because it's happening so often now."

Representatives from the IGHSAU and IHSAA echoed Irwin's sentiment in the January Associated Press article, saying questions, complaints and appeals regarding transfer issues have increased.

It's not just a basketball problem. Football, wrestling and volleyball teams have also taken advantage of the rule.

Irwin doesn't have a problem with athletes choosing to attend a certain school. His quarrel is with students who choose one school, then transfer to another with minimal penalty, thanks to the lax rule.

"(High school athletes) know which programs have strong traditions," Irwin said. "Their parents know it. I have no problem if they want to pick and choose their school before they get to high school, and I think that's basically what the state's saying too. If you want to transfer, do it before your freshman year."

It's also not a public versus private school issue. Feenstra, a graduate of Western Christian in Hull, said it's important for public and private schools to be held to the same standard.

"I am concerned that if we continue down this path, that private schools will end up being thrown out of the general tournament," said Feenstra, whose wife attended a public school. "That means they'd have to have their own tournament. I think it's important that the private schools hold to the same rules as the public schools.

"If you have an athlete there, they should stay in your school, or someone should sit out a year if they want to go to a private school."

This issue has come before the legislature before to no avail. The fact that it has come up multiple times says something about the staunch tradition already in place.

It's safe to say that high school athletics in the state of Iowa are relatively slow to adapt. For example, there are still two separate organizations while nearly every other state has consolidated into one. Also the state did not do away with six-player girls basketball until the 1990s.

No matter how overdue, Iowa owes its student-athletes this switch to even the playing field. Feenstra pointed out that young athletes are free to pick their own teams through organizations like the Amateur Athletic Union.

"They have (AAU) teams that play in the summer and that's where it should stay," Feenstra said. "I think that high school athletics should still be local. It should be those kids from that district or that community and we shouldn't have it where they change to win a state championship."

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