LHSAA: Split playoffs

The Louisiana High School Athletic Association departed from more than 90 years of tradition Friday by approving separate football playoffs based on select or non-select school status as it closed out its annual convention.

In a ground-breaking move, LHSAA member-school principals voted 206-119 to have five football championships for its 242 nonselect or traditional public schools that will be based on school enrollment. Between 120 and 140 will be designated as select schools and will play in two football divisions, also based on enrollment.

Schools in enrollment classes 5A to 3A would be placed in Select Division I; 2A and 1A schools would fall into Select Division II. Select and nonselect schools will remain in districts together and play each other in the regular season. Proponents of the plan said it will add 59 schools to the football playoffs.

Some member principals and spectators lining the back of the room burst into applause when the roll call vote tally was announced. The vote concluded a general assembly meeting that lasted nearly three hours at the Crowne Plaza.

The new bylaw will go into effect this fall and will mark the first time the LHSAA has contested championship play in any way other than integrated enrollment-based classes.

“I certainly don’t want to hurt the LHSAA or our schools,” said Winnfield Principal Jane Griffin, who spearheaded the legislation. “This doesn’t take championships away from select schools. It just makes my kids and other kids at public schools know they’ve got a chance. Every kid should believe they can be a champion. That can’t happen the way things are. Things are not fair and equitable. We’ll see what happens. If it doesn’t work, we can go back, and I’ll be leading the charge. But I think it will.”

Griffin’s proposal defines select schools as private schools, charter schools, full magnet schools, laboratory schools and dual-curriculum schools that draw at least 25 percent of their magnet component enrollment from outside a traditional attendance zone.

The Griffin proposal was one of two split-championship proposals, and three total classification proposals, considered at the end of the meeting agenda. A proposal from a year ago by former South Beauregard Principal Marlin Ramsey would have divided select and nonselect schools into separate championships for football and other major team sports.

The South Beauregard proposal failed to garner enough support to be taken off the table for consideration. An LHSAA executive committee proposal to classify football separately in five divisions and then classify all other sports in six classes also remained on the table.

Those decisions left the proposal for separate football championships to consider, and that led to an intense debate with passionate speakers on both sides of the issue.

Two New Orleans-area speakers, Jesuit Principal Michael Giambelluca and Edna Karr Principal John Hiser, compared the split to racial segregation.

Friday’s meeting marked the third time the LHSAA has voted on some sort of split proposal. In 1998 and 2004, the membership rejected proposals that would have divided the LHSAA into entirely separate divisions for public and private schools.

Griffin referenced football power John Curtis of River Ridge, which won its national-record 25th total state title in the fall, beating Evangel Christian Academy for the 2A crown. The Patriots have appeared in 17 straight title games. Winnfield lost to Curtis in the 2011 2A title game. Griffin talked about issues the LHSAA has policing recruiting by football powers and noted that “recruiting is recruiting, whether it’s in the fifth grade or the eighth grade.”

Two attempts to amend the proposal failed. One, proposed by Bud Dean, principal of Shreveport football power Evangel, would have placed all dual-curriculum schools in the select group regardless of enrollment percentages. The other would have allowed some charter schools to be designated as nonselect schools. That proposal came from Carver’s Isaac Pollock.

Karr’s Hiser noted: “Do people talk about putting Alabama football in some select group because they’ve won the national title for three out of four years? Look at the LHSAA. The same teams generally qualify for the playoffs (in various sports). They’re winning programs. Is it because they cheat or is because they have consistent programs?

“What does this measure teach our students? Does might make right? That you won’t be treated the same if you’re different?”

Destrehan High Principal Stephen Weber countered: “I submit to you, if there was integrity, we wouldn’t be having this discussion. We are the LHSAA. We have been talking about this, but that’s all we do is talk about it. We have never taken a stand. The world won’t come to an end if we pass it. If it doesn’t work, we can go back. At least we’ll be doing something.”

Catholic-New Iberia Principal Ray Simon and Teurlings Catholic’s Mike Boyer also argued against Griffin’s proposal.

“I ask that you allow us, the 20 percent minority, to retain full citizenship in the LHSAA, which I feel we will not be given if this passes,” Simon told the 328 voters on hand.

Boyer said: “We’re looking to change this organization for five football games. We need to explore all options and have questions answered before rushing to a decision.

“This proposal protects the safety of one group of students-athletes by placing them in enrollment-friendly divisions while sacrificing another group by placing them in divisions with huge enrollment disparities.”

Several members of the LHSAA’s executive committee voted for the proposal, including former president William Duplechain, of Port Barre High.

“I voted yes, and the reason why is that I think the ball was still,” Duplechain said. “Now, it’s rolling somewhere. If it’s rolling in the wrong direction, I’ll be the first one to vote to change that and put it in the right direction. It’s something we need to do as an organization. We need to get this thing that has been a festering sore and attempt to clean it up.”

John Curtis, football coach J.T. Curtis, also expressed his disappointment.

“I just hate to see division among student-athletes and people, and I’m terribly disappointed in that,” Curtis said. “It’s obviously a mistake from my point of view, but we’ll go with what the majority rules.”

Neither Griffin or LHSAA Executive Director Kenny Henderson attempted to project the future of the new bylaw. Griffin said threats of legal action and legislative interference are something educators already deal with.

Henderson said planning for seven football title games next year will first include a call to the Mercedes-Benz Superdome to make sure a third day for games is an option.

“Oh, we’ve got a lot of work to do,” Henderson said. “We’ve got to go in and talk about some of the questions we have about the whole thing and just the logistics of it.

“Everybody sitting in this room is the LHSAA, so it’s not an indictment of the LHSAA. It’s more of a choice, I guess. The vote from the people who voted yes is that this will give them more choice. This will give them a chance. Whether that does, I don’t know.”