At the start of the current calendar school year, the Michigan High School Athletic Association sent out a video and presentation to every participating school in the state under the campaign theme of "High School Sports: It's About TEAM!"
(All capitals AND an exclamation point. That's cute. Either the message was formed by a 15-year-old girl heading to a Justin Bieber concert or they must really mean business.)
Per the media release, the six-minute video "promotes the proper perspective that should be brought to high school sports, a perspective that educational athletic programs should strive to develop all the kids who want to participate to be their best in all respects - not just in athletics; and to provide meaningful playing opportunities for all participants - not just an elite few."
The irony is so thick it would qualify as a heavy weight under the current wrestling classes.
In this same calendar school year, the MHSAA has twice now rejected an appeal from Ishpeming High School that the current age limit rule - namely, that students who are over 19 years of age cannot participate in high school sports - be revised so that the Hematites soon-to-be-senior Eric Dompierre would be able to participate in basketball for his final year of school.
You see, Dompierre was born with Down Syndrome. As a result, he started elementary school later than most.
Dompierre is also a member of the Ishpeming basketball team. And as a participating member, he has been able to - how did the MHSAA so elegantly put it? - "strive to develop to be the best in all respects - not just in athletics."
Here are Eric and his father Dean's thoughts on the twice-rejected proposal, per UpperMichigansSource.com.
"I'd be sad if I couldn't play with them and not have them in my life. They want me to play, and I want to play with them," said Eric.
"He gets a lot of his confidence from the fact that he gets in the games, and he has a lot of support, not only from people here in Ishpeming, but people from all over the area are supportive of him. If he's told that he's not allowed to play anymore, I think he's going to lose a lot of that confidence. And that's been a key to his development," Dean added.
As you can see, the Dompierre family has taken the high road. Their quotes to the media have been respectful and earnest, while they are currently putting together a third petition to one more time try and right the wrong being done to Eric.
Allow me to take a more direct approach.
The MHSAA and its executive director John E. "Jack" Roberts have crossed the line from obnoxious paper shufflers - which really, is the best you can ever hope for from a high school sports governing body - to soulless bureaucrats.
This case is so cut-and-dried obvious, that the best course is to laugh at the level of incompetence the MHSAA has reached, lest you might choke and sputter in indignation.
A similar revision to the age rule is already in place in 23 other states, allowing students with disabilities to participate in sports past the age limit. The MHSAA, which claims to have given a "very thorough review," to the first two petitions, has decided to reject the proposal under the vague guise of a slippery slope argument.
Here is the argument in full, as presented by associate director Tom Rashid to AthleticBusiness.com:
"Their hearts go out to the kid, and they certainly want to help him, but if you did it for just one disability, why would you not allow a waiver for other disabilities?" Rashid says, citing autism as an example. "To measure what factors influence an unfair competitive advantage because of age - the height of a kid, the weight of kid, physical maturity - how do you successfully make those measurements and not sit in judgment? You just can't. The courts would define delineating those factors as an undue burden. The consistent universal application of the age rule is really the smartest thing to do. We feel we have vetted it and discussed it widely."
That is 109 words to deliver a simple message.
They are scared. Or lazy. Probably both.
By universally rejecting everyone, they can comfort themselves with the notion that they are protecting the competitive spirit of Michigan high school sports or some such nonsense. And in doing so they deny Eric, and any other kid in his situation, the opportunity to better their lives - which have already been hard enough.
You would think that this is what the MHSAA is there for, to make difficult choices that balance logic and fairness. There is a line somewhere that a nuanced appeals board should discover.
Of course, why rule with reason when a broad pen stroke is so much easier and a noon tee time is waiting?
But let's take Rashid at his word. Let us pretend that "delineating those factors (is) an undue burden." We shall give in to the assumption that competitive balance will be compromised by allowing kids with disabilities to play past the age of 18.
Competitive balance is already a sham. Private schools can reach out to kids an hour away and convince them to further their education away from the local public school. Wealthier districts will always have an advantage over poorer districts in sports that take money to play, like hockey, tennis and golf. And somehow, despite the MHSAA's constant and vigilant efforts to maintain a level playing field, the same powerhouse teams keep reaching the state tournament year after year. They are defending something that doesn't exist.
If given the choice between giving children with disabilities the chance to play four full years of sports or searching for some weird NFL-like parity the choice is beyond obvious. In fact, it's not even a choice.
But hey, at least Roberts, Rashid and the rest of the MHSAA already have the title for their sportsmanship video next year.
High School Sports: It's About Taking The Easy Way Out.
Interested in helping Eric play basketball for his senior season? Visit www.change.org and read the Dompierre's petition. Michael can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org for further discussion of the issue.