My friend Mo Patton had a good article in today’s Tennessean on the Tennessee Secondary School Athletic Association and a possible reshuffling of its classification system. The proposal is that the TSSAA go from a six-class system in football to a five-class system, and go to four classes in everything else.
According to Patton, a recent survey indicates that 60 percent of the state’s 302 Division I coaches prefer a return to the five-class system used from 1993 to 2008. But here’s a thought: why not go even lower?
Before I go there, let’s go back to the reason behind the six-class expansion to begin with: a reduction in travel costs. While the recent recession has been hard on a lot of people – not the least of which have been public schools – it still seems like a strange idea to me based on that justification.
From a football perspective, in a 10-game regular season, half a school’s games are on the road. Some of those “road” games may be no further than five or 10 miles down the highway, or a quick trip across county lines. At that point, you’re talking about three or four regular-season games a year being true road trips of perhaps 50 to 250 miles, with an occasional longer trip for a few schools.
But even in a six-class system, you’re going to have one or two of those longer road trips anyway, and certainly, many of the schools kept many of the same opponents once the reclassification was done.
For most schools, the trade-off was exchanging one or two of those longer trips for some closer to home… that’s a net gain of perhaps 100, 200 miles over the course of the season. There’s not a lot of gas money saved there.
And, once you consider the cost in time and money of getting groups of people together to discuss a restructuring, it could easily eat away some (all?) of the savings generated by the cost-cutting.
Now, I know that football is not the only sport affected. Multiply a couple hundred miles extra times a few other sports teams per school, and the costs add up. There may well be other important matters that went into consideration here of which I’m ignorant, so please excuse me if I’ve missed something. I was never a public school administrator who sat in on the conversations and wrestled with those tough decisions.
However, the crux of my argument wasn’t the diminishing returns of the economics. I am a sports fan by nature and a sports writer by trade, which suits me to at least offer a qualified opinion on the matter, which is: I think it stinks. We’ve watered down the system to the point where those championship trophies (not to mention the multitude of individual all-state honors) are starting to mean little more than that medal you got for participating in pee-wee soccer when you were five years old.
If you include the two private school divisions, eight different teams got to call themselves “state football champions” last season… and a lot of players could rightfully say they were “all-state” as well. As of the 2010 census, Tennessee had 6.35 million people. There are 16 states bigger than us. The two immediately in front of us, Indiana and Arizona, had five and six champions, respectively. Why do we need eight?
The football playoff brackets from last year were even more absurd. They’re littered with 5-5 and 4-6 teams throughout, with a few lucky 3-7 squads even making the postseason.
Okay, perhaps the soccer ribbon analogy was a bit much. I’m sure that the players who won those titles found them meaningful, as did the parents of those players. I don’t mean to diminish the work the players and coaches put in to earn them… but I’m afraid the system already has.
Part of the fun of being a sports fan is celebrating greatness when we see it. I congratulate the Christian Academy of Knoxville on its 3-A state title from last year, but given that the four teams it beat to get to the championship game had an average record of 6-4, how much should I value what it achieved? Was CA truly a great team, or did it just happen to be the last one standing by the nature of the system?
Simultaneously, part of the purpose of high school sports is teaching student-athletes life lessons, one of which is that an honor becomes less of an honor the more frequently it is bestowed. Perhaps this time next year, the honor of “state champion” will be a bit more meaningful.