Am I the only one who sees the irony in this?
Four decades after “white flight” sparked a proliferation of private schools, we’re on the brink of sports flight. The motto of this movement seems to be, “If we can’t beat them, leave them.”
In no way should the argument be diminished of an unequal playing field between the small, mostly rural public schools and the private schools that are similar in enrollment size only. It is a very real problem that the GHSA has either refused or been helpless to fix.
It’s just a shame that the people in charge have failed to come up with any kind of compromise on behalf of the young athletes across Georgia. The majority of the roughly 40 schools that had representatives attend a first-stage defection meeting in Rochelle, Ga., on Tuesday expressed a strong interest in creating a new association starting next fall.
“If I was a betting man, it’s gonna happen,” said Robby Robinson, the Washington-Wilkes football coach and athletic director who is on the eight-person committee that will meet again Wednesday to draw up potential by-laws for a new league to present in January. “The South Georgia schools are ready to go now.”
The numbers at the root of this movement don’t lie. Private schools are winning state championships in Class A at a grossly disproportionate rate. More than 80 percent of the state titles in the past five years have been claimed by the well-endowed private schools, with only two of 17 state titles last year won by public schools. The very real possibility exists this season that public schools will win zero championships at the Class A level.
“It’s not a football thing,” Robinson said. “This started eight to 10 years ago and just snowballed and gotten more unlevel. Small public schools in rural Georgia are at a huge disadvantage.”
Washington-Wilkes, which despite its smallest enrollment in school history got moved up to Class AA next season while no private schools got reallocated, and Warren County are among the 33 schools that gave a tentative yay vote to breaking away from the GHSA at last week’s meeting.
The only school at the meeting that said it won’t defect is Lincoln County. It’s surprising considering Larry Campbell, the state’s all-time winningest coach, has been for years the most vocal critic of the private school imbalance.
Campbell attended the meeting and supports all the arguments even though Lincoln County instead appealed to move to Region 8-B, anticipating many of its traditional Region 7 brethren to disappear and leave the Red Devils with nobody to schedule.
“We’re not going to beat them,” Campbell said of the growing private school monopoly. “I think this is the only way that South Georgia (public schools) stands a chance of winning another state championship. It ain’t about football and basketball like everybody thinks it is. It’s about all sports. We can’t compete with them in spring sports. No way.”
Private schools have a distinct advantage in being able to draw students from multiple counties and even other states. The state’s GOAL program further enhances the private recruitment opportunities by allowing taxpayers to receive scholarships to private schools, bolstering rosters in some of the larger metro area schools that already have huge economic advantages over rural public programs.
All four Class A state semifinalists in this year’s football playoffs were among the GOAL schools.
“It’s like comparing Alabama, with all its facilities and abilities to recruit the best players, to Division II schools that only can take what they can get,” Robinson said.
Campbell has been called a “crybaby” by critics who claim sour grapes. Lincoln County has won more football games than any school in the state the past five seasons (56) without winning a state title, and the Red Devils have been eliminated four consecutive seasons by private schools.
“I’ve still got a chance in football,” Campbell said. “But it’s beginning to affect spring sports in where kids at public schools are not willing to come out because they’ll work all this time and as soon as they play a private school they’re beat.”
Washington-Wilkes and Lincoln County had the top two region seeds in last year’s girls’ tennis playoffs, and both were eliminated by private schools so fast that some of the girls never won a game and others never got a chance to take the court.
“Our poor kids don’t have a chance,” Robinson said.
The Class A schools have offered numerous compromise proposals since the effective 1.5 multiplier that used to place private schools in more competitive classifications was eliminated. A vote to try holding separate state championships for public and private schools in spring sports was narrowly defeated by the GHSA executive committee only because Campbell couldn’t attend the meeting because of a family emergency.
Instead the GHSA pushed for a six-classification system that only affected the state’s largest programs and left Class A in the same predicament.
“We fell for that like idiots. It killed us,” Campbell said. “They asked for our support on it because they said it was going to get rid of some of the larger private schools. It didn’t get rid of the first one. Zero.”
So they’ve reached an impasse and left many of the smaller public schools considering rebellion. It might be a grand bluff, but to believe that would be naive.
“There’s a lot of leg work been done by a lot of people,” Robinson said. “There’s been efforts to making changes within the GHSA and all that effort has fallen by the wayside. So what else do you do? This is kind of a last-ditch effort to alleviate some of the problems.”
There’s enough support and unrest for it to happen.
“Goes back to the number of schools that want to do it – if enough schools go, travel won’t be an issue,” Robinson said. “We’re going to ultimately do what’s best for our kids.”
Lincoln County will as well, and ironically that might mean Campbell joins a new region with three of the very private schools he knows have a jurisdictional advantage.
“It might be our answer irregardless of what happens south of us,” Campbell said. “We’ve got to face them sooner or later. Might as well face them right off the bat.”
Because of the GHSA’s inaction on a relevant issue, our area might end up having schools placed in three different athletic leagues next fall. It’s a shame leadership has let it come to this.