The Class Basketball Debate (part two)

The Indiana High School Athletic Association’s switch from a single ‘class’ tournament to a multi-class tournament that crowns multiple champions in boys basketball is one of the defining sports events of my lifetime.  It is at the heart of both of my books.  Blue Blood, my history of the Indianapolis Colts features it prominently.  My soon to be released novel Invincible, Indiana also revolves around the final single class tournament.  Over the next few weeks, I’ll be debating the issue with 18to88 reader Billy Brandle.  Billy is fiercely in favor of the change, and I am equally convinced it is a mistake.  Yesterday, I presented Billy’s point of view. Then in the days to come we’ll answer each other’s questions. Please note: this is an issue that stirs passion on all sides. I rarely ever have to admonish 18to88 readers to be respectful, but in this case allow me to mention it preemptively.  This WILL be a civil debate.

It is difficult for me to discuss the switch to multi-class basketball without using hyperbolic words.  Today’s article will not betray the depths of my passion on this issue.  I’ve saved that for other mediums.  I understand that many out there have benefited from the class system, and have had wonderful memories and experiences.  Please understand that it is not my wish to belittle your accomplishments, or cheapen your memories.

The multi-class system has been an unmitigated disaster for Indiana basketball.  It fails on two important levels. The first is philosophical, and the second is practical.

On a philosophical level, multi-class basketball fails because it teaches youth the wrong lessons about life and the nature of competition. Classes based on size make sense in some sports where sheer numbers become an overwhelming advantage.  The cost of equipment and fields is so great for sports like football, that it makes games between schools of vastly different sizes non-sporting. In football, safety is a real issue as smaller schools are forced to play more underclassmen, and the size difference can simply be dangerous. 

Basketball, however, is NOT football. The team size is the smallest of any of the major sports. It does not require expensive equipment to train or practice. While the myth of the six man team as outlined in Hoosiers is entertaining, that’s simply not the reality even for Single A schools. Large schools have a greater talent pool to draw from, but that does not mean that come tip off time they have any unfair advantage.

Simply put, the fact that one team is better than another is not an advantage that officials on or off the court have any right or need to correct for. Essentially, basketball represents the best kind of fairness:

Equality of opportunity.

It’s an age old debate in America, whether opportunity or outcome need to be fair.  Ultimately, when we chop up basketball into classes based on size, we tell our young people that we want to guarantee equality of outcome.  That’s insidious and dangerous.  We move the boundaries of what fairness is and means.  We tell our youth: if you are small and out-manned, you don’t have to compete with the big boys. 

That’s a disturbing and indefensible message.

All a free society has the responsibility to provide to its people is a fair shot.  Five on each side.  Baskets that are the same height. Officials dedicated to calling the game fairly.  Who wins and how often is not the issue. In fact, the system should be blind to that.  If the playing field is level, the outcome should be decided strictly on talent.  Having better players is not unfair.  It’s life.  Fairness has nothing to do with talent, only on the constructs which define the game.

On practical level, multi-class basketball has been a disaster.

First, it has killed enthusiasm for basketball in the state of Indiana.  Attendance at the Final Four has plummeted since the switch.  The Final Four day routinely drew more than 45,000 people, and now routinely draws fewer than 30,000, despite playing more games. People do not care about the state tournament the way they used to. The drop is directly and indisputably linked to the multi-class switch. 

The switch to class basketball took revenue away from the IHSAA as a whole and redistributed it to individual schools. Small private schools now have the opportunity to boast to parents and boosters about championships leading to increased donations. Private schools dominate the lower classes of basketball now, essentially allowing parents to ‘purchase’ championships for their children.  They give more money to buy nicer facilities and uniforms which then ‘attract’ athletes to their schools. This was a move that benefited the few at the expense of the many.

The multi-class switch destroyed the sectional system. Before the change, winning a sectional title was seen as a major accomplishment.  Sectionals were based on small geographical areas, allowing schools to have bragging rights over the surrounding area.  State titles were rare and precious, and many schools could never dream of earning one, but the sectional title was a real prize, something that was attainable, and intensely valuable.  Now, sectionals are spread out over larger areas, greatly dampening enthusiasm for the early rounds of play, and making travel more difficult.

In the end, what is gained? There are few more sectionals now than there used to be, allowing for a handful of extra celebrations.  Some 40-50 extra kids a year get to be crowned Indiana State Champions, but arguing for a change that benefits so few is difficult.  The fact is that the number of Hoosiers who have been robbed of a key aspect of their identity far far outweighs the handful of kids who actually benefit from the change.

It is not a straw man at all to say that passion for high school basketball has died in Indiana.  Just yesterday I received comments and letter from people who expressed their pain and dismay at the loss of the defining event in the state.  You can read one of those letters here.

The multi-class system teaches the wrong lessons to kids, largely benefits private schools, helps very few students, has been a disaster economically, and undermined the passion of millions of Hoosiers. 

It is an indefensible system that should never have been put in place.

Next week: Billy and I trade questions and answers and respond to one another.