Analysis: GHSA was no villain or hero in Wheeler case

So, Wheeler’s state-championship basketball team will be allowed to play in New York next month after all.

One thing that most can agree on: It will be fun to see how Wheeler matches up with many of the nation’s elite teams on April 2-4 in Madison Square Garden when the Wildcats play in the Dick’s Sporting Goods National Invitational. It will be a productive experience and opportunity for Wheeler’s players. Everyone wishes Wheeler the best.

The Wheeler case is closed for now, but the issue of a high school team’s freedom to participate in these types of post-season events is far from settled.

The Georgia High School Association on Wednesday did a rare thing when it went against its bylaws and allowed one of its member schools to participate in a national tournament after the GHSA basketball season was finished.

Wheeler won the Class AAAAAA title and stands No. 6 nationally in USA Today’s rankings. The Dick’s Nationals tournament will take the eight highest-ranked teams that accept invitations and are allowed by their state associations to participate.

Here are 10 points worth considering as the GHSA gets ready for an executive committee meeting on April 13, when the issue will raise some lively debate.

1. The GHSA was not the villain for denying Wheeler’s original request to participate. The GHSA does not make the laws that govern its nearly 500 member schools. The bylaws are made by the schools themselves. Each of Georgia’s 48 regions has a member on the GHSA’s law-making executive committee. The bylaw that prevents teams from playing in post-season national tournaments has been on the books for decades. The GHSA’s executive director, Gary Phillips, essentially risks his job by taking a stand against any GHSA bylaw. Caught between a rock and a hard place, Phillips polled his board of trustees Wednesday before making the highly unusual decision not to enforce a bylaw. As associate director Ernie Yarbrough put it: ‘’Our office staff can’t arbitrarily decide to violate one of our bylaws. We don’t want to set a precedent that opens Pandora’s Box.’’

2. The GHSA was not a hero for granting Wheeler’s request, either. The GHSA’s final decision had nothing to do with Wheeler’s heart-felt argument that this was a once-in-a-life opportunity for a roster of 15 basketball players and their school. The GHSA became concerned when reminded of a 2006 state law might or might not apply to this situation. The GHSA is highly motivated to avoid court rooms and house bills.

3. The 2006 law came about after the GHSA ruled that a football player - Justin "Bean'' Anderson of Irwin County - ineligible for playing in the Army All-American game, a national post-season all-star event. Some legislators were appalled at the news and essentially bullied the GHSA to change its bylaw and restore the player’s eligibility. The General Assembly then passed a law: “A student shall not lose eligibility to participate as a team member on an interscholastic sports team solely because such student participates during the school year at any time outside of regular season, including playoffs, in a national competitive event, such as an all-star or showcase event, that is not sanctioned by such athletic association."

4. The 2006 state law may or may not apply to a sports team. It was passed to address the issue of individual student-athletes. The GHSA just didn't want to take a risk that would land it in court. The GHSA’s executive committee will meet next month and decide whether to delete the bylaw that blocked Wheeler, or to amend it, or to keep it.

5. Georgia’s bylaw about teams participating in national-championship tournaments after the state season is in line with almost every other state in the country. According to Robin Kelner, a media representative for Dick’s Nationals, only three state associations have granted their teams permission to play in the New York event in the past. Those are the FHSAA (Florida), WIAA (Washington) and UHSAA (Utah). Earlier this week, North Carolina denied the request of one of its girls state champions to participate in the event. Many of the teams participating are prep schools and independent private schools such as Oak Hill Academy (whose alumni include Carmelo Anthony and Josh Smith) that are not members of traditional state associations.

6. There will be strong support next month for keeping the GHSA's bylaws as they are, especially if executive committee members believe it will avoid legal challenge. One rationale is that teams such as Wheeler gain a competitive advantage for being able to practice and compete for another three weeks. There is probably not a coach in the state who wants another team to get more practice time unless it is his or her team. Further, for about the past 15 years, Georgia’s boys basketball state championships in the highest classification have been won by nationally renowned programs that attract elite players who move into their districts primarily to play basketball. Right or wrong, expect strong sentiment against any rule that might fuel that trend or make those programs even more attractive to those kinds of players.

7. Another argument for the keeping the current bylaw is that it keeps student-athletes and coaches (who are teachers) in class. Don’t underestimate that reasoning. The GHSA answers to superintendents and principals who have different agendas than does the typical high school sports fan.

8. As Yarbrough suggested, the Wheeler case does open Pandora’s Box of what’s legal and what is not for high school teams looking to play outside of their Georgia regular season. Dick’s Nationals, while very prestigious, is not an official national championship. It is not sanctioned by the national high school federation. It is a private event that will secure many, but certainly not all, of the best teams in the country. Should the GHSA allow its high school teams to participate in any national event at any time of the year? What would prevent a national circuit of these events that keeps elite teams from playing almost year-round? Yarbrough makes this point: ‘’Anybody that wants to get a high-dollar sponsor can get an event like that. For every promoter out there that wants to set up a national tournament for anything high school, we’re going to get hit up every time one of our high school teams is considered national-calibre. Are there any regulations they are running this by? Is it the kind you want high school athletes involved in? People don’t understand bylaws are in place to protect schools and athletes.’’

9. The legacy of the late Tom Murphy is alive and well. Murphy, the power speaker of the Georgia House of Representatives from 1973 to 2002, got involved in the GHSA’s business in 2000 when his alma mater high school Bremen was beaten by private schools in a state debate competition. Long story short, the General Assembly pressured the GHSA into making changes in how it classified public and private schools. Since 2000, the GHSA has looked over its shoulder for the fear of legislative intervention. In 2006, the General Assembly went ahead and made a state law, even though the GHSA had already changed its bylaws to fix the problem in question. Now, the 2006 law comes back to influence a case for which it was not necessarily intended. Today, nobody takes issue with individual athletes playing in national post-season all-star games. But the Wheeler situation is more divisive because of the competitive-advantage arguments. It re-opens the old debate: Should the General Assembly be in the GHSA’s business?

10. And finally, Wheeler might win this thing. The Wildcats have a victory over Florida's Montverde Academy, the tournament's defending champion. It will take a great effort, but don't bet against Wheeler and its star player, Jaylen Brown, the consensus No. 2 senior prospect in the country. It's too bad that Jonesboro and St. Francis, Georgia state champions that also have national rankings, can't get their shot as well. If Pandora's Box is open, then what about an all-classification tournament after the state championships in every sport? Is there a local promoter and sponsor that would like to try their hand at that? Can the GHSA stop them? The next GHSA executive committee meeting will be interesting.

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