Last year, Red Lion Academy in Delaware had a showdown that plays out in many high schools throughout the country: Which should predominate: Academics or athletics? Red Lion had built itself into a nationally recognized high school football powerhouse, but the strain of doing so was dividing and burdening the school. A charge of academic fraud was levied at the football program but not proven. The school was banned from post-season play. Against this backdrop, school administrators decided they could either be a good academic academy or an awesome athletic school. Amazingly, academics won out.
So where did the athletes go? They created their own school, which is partly on-site and partly online through National Connections Academy, a provider of online secondary education. Then the Honey Badgers, as they are called, came together to form a team that includes a litany of college recruits, including some who have committed to USC. While officials say the emphasis is on academics, it is difficult to take that statement on face value, given the circumstances in which the school was founded and the mode in which it operates. It is easy to say, “Academics? Honey Badgers don’t give a —-!” Furthermore, even if academics are stressed, it sets a dangerous precedent that others may pursue setting up a school at the detriment of academics, i.e., enrolling in the football players in an online school and then forming your own team so that practices are not encumbered by class schedules.
For many in this country, online, charter and private schools are welcome advantage over traditional public education. In my view, parents and students should have the choice to pursue their education at the high school that best suits their needs and desires, even if that motive is athletics. I even support transfers for athletic reasons without eligibility penalties. However, what should not be allowed is forming a school solely for athletic advantage. School sports are supposed to be about students representing their school through sport. It is about building a community and identity within the school and giving students chances to work toward a common goal and learning lessons in both success and failure. High school athletics is incredibly awarding to those who participate in them. However, that purpose is frustrated where a school is created solely and expressly for athletics. In that case, athletes are no longer representing a school; they are the school.
Most of all, though, this is a situation ripe for abuse. What would stop a college booster from starting a school to funnel players to the college of his choice? This would not only create a recruiting advantage, it could potentially create a competitive advantage by allowing a large number of recruits for one school to play together as teammates in high school.
Imagine if the Eastern Christian Academy drama played out on the college level. A group of college football enthusiasts found a school for the express purpose of starting a team, enroll the athletes in University of Phoenix classes, and start playing games. Would the NCAA allow it? So far, Maryland has yet to recognize the school as a member because the Academy has not scheduled any Maryland schools as an opponent. I would urge high school governing associations to enact rules that address this situation and specific bar online schools from playing athletics.