Tuesday, August 09, 2011

SPORTS >> Solution is simple for class dilemma

Leader sports editor

It’s been almost 10 years since the Arkansas Activities Association and its members first began to try and sort out the numbers disparity in the state’s top classification.

Last week, three proposals were put before those members to try to help solve the seemingly impossible riddle of fairness, and none passed.

Two made some sense, but weren’t ideal. Another proposal, put forth by Springdale Har-Ber, was to basically put things back exactly like they were when this mess all started a decade ago. Inexplicably, that was the one the AAA board gave a do-pass recommendation. It came close too. It got more yes votes than no, 85-84, but didn’t get a two-thirds majority, thanks to some reasonable minds in the meeting.

In the early part of last decade it became apparent that the 32-team system at the top was no longer fair. Back then, the largest school, which was Springdale, had about 2,200 students while the smallest, which was Jacksonville, had about 850. The disparity is much larger today. Back then, former Jacksonville football coach Johnny Watson submitted the most sensible proposal that’s ever come across the AAA board for consideration. It failed, and it wasn’t even close.

This week, a very similar proposal went before the board again. This time it was proposed by Siloam Springs, which will be a 6A school when the next classification cycle begins in 2012. It received a 12-5 do-not-pass recommendation by the AAA board. And it failed again, and again by a huge margin.

As dumb as it may sound to go back to the same thing that got all this started, it would be an improvement over the debacle that the AAA and its members have turned the higher classifications into with each new change over the years.

This current system has teams playing conference games in classifications other than the one it will compete in if it makes the playoffs.

This is the one that so brilliantly ended up putting the third and fourth place teams from the 6A East against each other in last year’s class 7A state basketball championship game. The one that will have Siloam Springs, currently a 5A school, playing all of its conference games against the 7A West next season, and needing to have a better record than say, Mountain Home, who plays all 6A-East conference games, to make the playoffs. It’s very likely that Siloam Springs could go 0-7 in conference play, and yet be good enough to finish second or third in the 6A-East, but won’t be in the playoffs.

Their proposal would have made the top 16 schools its own classification. The number of teams in the next six classes (five of which will be football schools) would breakdown like this in order of enrollment numbers, 32, 32, 48, 48, 48 and then everyone else would be 1A.

It failed by a huge margin.

The other respectable proposal was put forth by Pine Bluff. It would arrange conferences geographically with consideration given to enrollment and travel, and would have split the top 32 teams in football only.

That part seems to make some sense, since it was an all 6A final in the class 7A state championship basketball game, proving that depth isn’t quite as important in other sports as it may be in the grueling and physical 7A level of football. But ultimately this proposal could end up being too confusing.

You still have to go back to 2002 when Watson presented what is still the most reasonable proposal to date.

It would eliminate one of the many classifications we have now, and it would have corrected the problem of disparity in numbers at the top and overcrowding at the bottom. His proposal was simple, maybe too simple, and that was the AAA’s problem, since the current format shows how creative it likes to be.

It simply would have made the top 16 schools its own classification, in this case it would be 6A. Everything after that goes back to exactly the way it’s always been. The next 32 are 5A, the next 32 are 4A. The next 64 after that make up 3A, and the next 64 after that are 2A thus ends the football classifications. Everyone left would make up 1A and play in whatever sports their schools have to offer.

It would still leave a few too many teams in 2A to make up the nice and neat eight-conference, eight-teams per conference system, but it would eliminate 16 teams from that classification, and it would certainly fix the problem at the top.

One argument against splitting the top classification is that it lowers the value of the top classification’s state champion. That’s simply not true.

No one, at this point, questions the fact that 7A is by far the strongest football classification. It’s not even close in fact. Sure, a 7A team gets knocked off here and there against lower classification teams, but those teams would not fare nearly as well playing seven games in a row against that level.

And as far as basketball goes, the facts are just as obvious in the opposite direction. The power is not in 7A as evidenced by the fact of last year’s previously mentioned playoffs.

The lamest excuse for keeping the top 32 together is the argument from toughness. It’s a favored cry, mostly from 7A people, that the bottom teams need to just get better and face the competition, and “quit crying.”

This obviously has no merit. This idea means there should be only one classification, with such scenarios as Marvell traveling to Bentonville in the first round of the playoffs. There has to be a boundary, and the people trumpeting this call know it, too. Otherwise, they would go ahead and argue for one classification.

And since the 6A detractors offer such disparaging claims about those schools’ competitiveness, consider another possibility. Perhaps it’s just as cynical towards 7A as the aforementioned attitude towards 6A, but it’s out there.

Remember it was Har-Ber that proposed putting things back to how they were. Perhaps those schools at the top simply like the idea of an easy first-round playoff game. They know they’ll have all the advantages, even if it’s their own four seed against a one. The fourth-place team with 2,800 students and 200 players is probably going to be better than the first place team with 800 students and 60 players.

Ten years ago, one minor change to that system would have solved everything. Instead, the AAA and its members came up with a bad alternative, and have only made worse with every attempt to fix it.

Go back to the simple brilliance of Watson’s plan, and get on with competitive high school athletics.