A strategic goal of the Iowa Girls High School Athletic Union is to represent the “Iowa Girl”. It's on its website
In my eight years covering news and sports in Iowa, they’ve done a bang up job. I’ve covered cross country, volleyball and wrestling at the state level – events that are put on by the boys and girls athletic unions.
Leaving those events, I’m always proud to be an Iowan and blown away by how good we are at what we do.
But there was chink in the armor during this past COVID-infused fall sports season.
Both the IGHSAU and the Iowa High School Athletic Association have been banged with applications and appeal hearings on athletes pouring into the state to play fall sports. Unenviable to be sure.
I wrote a month ago how impressed I was with how Iowa’s unions had dug their heels in when it came to students flocking to Iowa to finish out their high school sports careers. The COVID pandemic had shut down most of the nation’s high school sports programs.
Iowa pressed on, and then touted the success with more than 95% of teams finishing the season without being incumbered by the pandemic.
We believe it was more of a don’t ask, don’t tell scenario, and the numbers don’t accurately reflect the impact of the pandemic on sports programs. That’s a deduction of course based on formal and informal conversations, but one simply need to look one county to the north to see the real impact of pushing ahead.
However, we all need something to cheer about. I’ve said that since the state said “Play ball” this summer.
But almost in a queasy fashion the unions started to back down on their commitment to protect the integrity of the programs and Iowa athletes as the post-season approached. In all fairness, the timing of that could be attributed to appeals and the time it takes to work through that process.
And again, “in all fairness”, the girls union is creating a pathway to abandon its strategy of protecting the “Iowa Girl”.
Several Illinois girls were given eligibility on appeal in October to play for Burlington Notre Dame this year. The ruling came after IGHSAU Director Jean Berger denied the families application for immediate eligibility at the start of the year. Her denial forced a 90-day varsity waiting period, or an appeal, and was based on information provided by the school, the family, and interested parties.
After the eligibility was granted four weeks ago, the impact was felt immediately. The Nikes were 12-15 in set play prior to the girls arrival. They are 30-5 since that time and are one match away from the state tournament after beating Holy Trinity in a fifth-set tiebreaker 15-12 Monday night.
Holy Trinity swept the Nikes on Sept. 15 in three sets, Notre Dame beat HTC at the Keokuk tourney four days later 2-1 before the transfers were eligible.
Berger said new information came to light during the appeal process, a process that typically is not reserved for new information.
“The family appealed to the Board of Directors and the initial administrative ruling by me was overturned by the Board,” Berger wrote in an email to Pen City Current Tuesday morning.
“The family presented new information during the appeal process which led to the change in the eligibility ruling.”
Pen City Current requested information on the change of status in early October after writing on how well we thought the unions were doing sticking to their guns as families looked to Iowa as a place for their children to compete. We received no answer until reaching out again Monday morning to Berger and Lisa Brinkmeyer, the union’s administrator for volleyball.
We don’t blame the families looking to Iowa as place to play. Lots of resources are spent to get these kids to where they are. To have their seasons yanked from them leaves parents looking for answers.
But leasing or even buying a home across state lines in another district isn’t solely enough to pass the test set up by Iowa Code under the General Transfer Rule. The intent has to be to make a home for reasons in addition to athletic participation.
To overrule Berger’s original decision creates a pathway to an end run on the intent of the GTF, and comes close to abandoning the IGHSAU’s strategy of promoting the Iowa Girl. There are legitimate reasons for immediate eligibility and clearly the IGHSAU board of directors agreed on appeal.
But, even aside from this COVID infected 2020, the board has leeway to move in both directions.
We think the paramount question should be, “If it weren’t for COVID, would the move have taken place?” Families with attorneys can make that case to the unions, but extra steps should be taken to see past the moves made to make the transfers seem legitimate.
Maybe more definitive rules for bordering states and shorter time limits for appeals would bring forth the legitimacy of transfers, especially with winter sports now squarely in the coronavirus crosshairs. Illinois raised the risk level for winter sports one notch on Tuesday.
It would seem a stretch that Berger didn’t have all the pertinent information at the time she rendered her decision. The board should also be giving deference to the director’s opinions and shouldn’t allow “new information.” That amounts to a different hearing altogether, not an appeal of a decision. Courts don’t allow new evidence on appeal, only a review of the submitted facts, determinations, and procedures of the lower court.
So Iowa Girls throughout the region, including Wapello, Winfield-Mt. Union, Holy Trinity, and now possibly WACO, are subject to having their dreams dashed because the union board ruled in favor of allowing these Illinois transfers, a transfer the director didn’t deem appropriate.
The union’s are not public bodies, therefore there is no on-the-record accountability. But we all are accountable for our actions. And even though we have no legal access to the unions, we do have the right and responsibility to scrutinize a decision that goes against the grain of their vision and mission.
Our question, which can’t be answered because the union isn’t subject to public meetings laws, is was the decision on appeal based on changed information, or information that Berger wasn’t privy to? Either case would seem on the surface insufficient on appeal.
It’s certainly a tough pill to swallow for every family of a senior Iowa Girl who was sent home this volleyball season, in part, because of that ruling.
On a related note, that volleyball game on Monday was some of the gutsiest stuff I've seen on a court from two teams in a long time. That excitement is what the post-season is all about. But that's Beside the Point
The above article has been corrected to show that Notre Dame won 2-1 at the Keokuk tourney, not Holy Trinity We originally reported that Holy Trinity won that match and we apologize for that error in fact.
Chuck Vandenberg is editor/co-owner of Pen City Current and can be reached by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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