VPA rule offers schools, athletes leeway

ADDISON COUNTY — A new Vermont Principals’ Association rule gives schools and coaches more leeway to allow team-sport athletes to participate in the same sport on non-school teams during school seasons, at least on a limited basis. It could have an impact in the future of high school sports both locally and statewide.
The so-called “loyalty clause” provision adopted by the VPA in early August will not change the decision of five talented local high school soccer athletes to develop their skills with the Synergy Football Club rather than play for their Middlebury or Mount Abraham squads this fall (see related story here).
But some area athletic directors and coaches said they would be open to allowing athletes to participate in club or sport showcase events, at least on a limited basis.
“It should be up to the individual coaches and schools to make the decisions for their programs,” said Vergennes Union High School Activities Director Peter Maneen.
VUHS boys’ soccer coach Kevin Hayes said he would consider allowing a player “with an aspiration to play in college” to miss a team event in order to attend a showcase event, although Mount Abe boys’ soccer coach Mike Corey had a different view.
Corey believes there are already enough offseason events to allow athletes to meet that goal.
“I would never allow that, ever,” he said.
MUHS Activities Director Sean Farrell agreed that families should have more say, but did urge caution.
“Every kid is going to want to play as much as they want to play,” Farrell said. “We as parents sometimes have to put the brakes on it.”
The VPA looked at the issue when parents of players in the Synergy soccer club approached the organization this past fall and asked if schools could release their athletes to a showcase event staged before the end of the 2013 high school soccer season.
“It’s been percolating for a long time,” said VPA Associate Executive Director Bob Johnson. “We had a few discussions, but no serious actions were taken. But then, yes, last fall because of the situation we ran into with Synergy, we did end up meeting with a group of parents from Synergy back in November, and they brought that forward as a request.”
Synergy parent and coach Tal Birdsey, a Ripton resident, identified the dates as a holiday weekend when high school teams were not scheduled to play.
“Last year we held four trainings on Sundays and had planned on going to the Puma Cup over Columbus Day weekend, when the school teams were off,” Birdsey said.
After two VPA committees worked for months on the issue, they came up with this:
“Bona fide members of a school team are prevented from missing a high school practice or competition to compete with an out-of-school team, practice or competition to include tournaments, showcases, combines or other athletic events.
“Whenever a conflict arises between the high school team practice/competition and an out-of-school practice/competition on the same day, the high school team practice/competition shall be honored by the student athlete. Priority must be given at all times to the high school team, its practices, and its contest unless permission has been granted by the school. It is expressly understood that permission shall not be granted on a regular basis.”
Johnson said the rule does not give schools a free pass to allow athletes to participate on non-school teams or in non-school events.
“The position will always be the first loyalty has to be to the high school if they wish to stay with the high school team,” he said, adding, “The new rule basically says if you want to play on a non-school team you can, but your first loyalty, for practices and games, has to lie with the school team. And if you are going to miss a practice and a game, it is only under a very unique situation that should not commonly occur.”
Schools may choose to adopt a stricter policy, but not a less restrictive policy, Johnson said.
“Our policies serve as a baseline. With our policies you can always adopt a more restrictive, but you cannot adopt a more lenient,” he said.
Johnson also said that in the past individual sport athletes, notably gymnasts and Nordic skiers, had been allowed to compete outside of their school teams, while team athletes — notably girls’ hockey players — had not.
“Bringing this policy into being also resolved that issue and put all sports on the same level,” he said. “Now it provides a level of consistency.”
But Birdsey raised a central philosophical objection to the policy: Students, if they are “doing something on their own time” that does not “conflict with school athletics, they should be free to do so.”
For example, he said, what if the Synergy students had different plans for the 2013 Columbus Day weekend?
“If our players had attended a religious convention in New York last October, that would have been fine by the rules. But they were barred from playing the gameeven when it did not interfere with school play,” Birdsey said. “That seems absurd. As a parent, I assert that my child is free to do what he or she wishes on his or her own time so long as it did not interfere with other commitments. The state or the school cannot prevent him from doing that.”
Johnson said nationally almost every state has such a loyalty clause, in part because of concern over the “increasing number of overuse injuries” suffered by young athletes.
Also, he said, the VPA has an inherent right to protect the well being of its school teams.
“Participation on a high school team is not a right, it’s a privilege. So when you decide to go out for your high school team you make that agreement when you are going out that you are going to abide by their rules,” Johnson said. “Students don’t have to play on their high school teams. Schools don’t have to be members of the VPA. That is all done on a voluntary basis.”
Andy Kirkaldy may be reached at [email protected].

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