THE ISSUE: IHSA schools vote in district proposal, altering playoff landscape
OUR VIEW: A couple of key points seem overlooked as debate carries on
Earlier this month the Illinois High School Association announced a dramatic change to its most high-profile sport.
Starting in 2021, the IHSA will assign football teams to districts of eight or nine teams, basing those assignments on enrollments and geography. Similar to a system employed in other states, the new approach will, only for football, mean the end of conference standings and rivalry games that in some cases go back more than a century.
Very few folks invested in the sport — players, coaches, administrators and fans — heard the news without having an immediate reaction, positive, negative or otherwise. The change will go into effect about five decades after the last moves to make such waves, implementing football playoffs in the first place in 1974 and the end of the single-class basketball tournament that resulted in only a single champion crowned every year from 1908 to 1971.
We’re not here to tell you the change to districts is good or bad. As with any similar overhaul, there are going to be pros and cons, major improvements, significant drawbacks and unintended consequences. What we would like to do, however, is address a couple of talking points that seem to be taking hold in the public sphere.
For starters, a lot of folks angry with the move are saying the IHSA was wrong to make the change. While it’s OK to be mad, it’s worth noting the IHSA didn’t do anything itself other than put the issue up to a vote of member schools, and it did so in accordance with standard operating procedure. The IHSA isn’t a monolithic autocrat, the schools collectively make rules and enact bylaws. A similar vote failed in 2014, and the football advisory committee submitted another proposal this year.
On a related note, our friends at the Chicago Sun-Times ran a recent editorial asserting such a significant change shouldn’t be subject to a simply majority vote.
“The reorganization passed by a vote of 324-307 by high school principals,” the editorial board wrote Dec. 21. “That nothing more than a simple majority — in this case, a margin of just 17 votes — could dictate such a drastic change leaves us scratching our heads. Proposals like this one should require a three-fourths or three-fifths supermajority to pass. More people should be convinced first of the merits of the change.”
But it’s important to pull back a little bit and also count the 69 no opinion votes as well as the 118 schools that didn’t weigh in at all. Just like in political campaigns, turnout is a huge factor, and the IHSA said this ballot was the most active by far all decade. The 2014 vote was a much stronger no, with the final tally just 212 to 395 in favor. The fact the yes side picked up 112 votes while the no folks lost 88 represents a major swing and indicates the folks who said districts were an eventual inevitability were perfectly prescient.
Another number is worth considering: 560. That’s the number of schools that fielded IHSA 11-man teams in 2018. We don’t have figures for which of the 700 ballots came from schools without football or how those schools voted, but those seem like more important questions to ask than most of what’s being bandied about.
Folks who remain fervently opposed to district play could have the chance to reverse the state’s course. It’d likely be tremendously difficult given IHSA bylaws plus the logistics of football scheduling and obviously would be met with stern opposition from folks ready to try a new approach, but nothing is set in stone until the 2021 season actually begins.
What’s more likely, though, is that IHSA members see this vote as a wake-up call that their votes truly do matter, that although the fates are up to the collective, the individual actions of each school can have far-reaching effects. This is a more democratic approach than the representative state and federal governments, as each member actually gets one equal vote, but that just makes it all the more important to actually complete ballots.
Perhaps there will be a change in future bylaws enacting a supermajority threshold. Perhaps more administrators will reach out to their communities to explain the legislative process before and after controversial votes. Perhaps the district system will be an unqualified success, rendering all this hand-wringing overwrought in retrospect.
Whatever the outcome, we thank the local coaches and administrators who have given thoughtful comments about the process to our reporters and pledge to continue to keep our readers informed as this process evolves. For some folks it’s just silly sports, but for many high school football represents a community cornerstone. As purveyors of detailed coverage of your favorite local gridders, we understand a drastic change like this will reverberate for years into the future.