(From Telegram.com, By Rich Garven TELEGRAM & GAZETTE STAFF
West Boylston High School’s Michael Dziczek found the Sportsmanship Summit to be a worthwhile experience — and not just because he got out of school and spent a day at the home of the New England Patriots.
The just-graduated senior liked the program so much he attended it twice, including his junior year when Doug Flutie was a guest speaker.
While the Massachusetts Interscholastic Athletic Association is best known for running tournaments for high school athletes, the organization has shifted its efforts to educational programs for students and coaches, including the annual Sportsmanship Summit, which has been held the last three years at Gillette Stadium.
“It was very informative,” said Mr. Dziczek, who captained the basketball and baseball teams this year. “It was all about teaching you to be a leader and getting people to look up to you and have a positive view about it.”
The MIAA was founded 30 years ago when the state’s principals felt they were spending an inordinate amount of time managing athletics. Since then the governing body of high school sports in the state has undergone tremendous growth and extended its influence while dramatically altering its view of where its efforts and resources should be channeled.
“We’re an education association, not an athletic association,” executive director Richard Neal insisted last month during an interview.
To underscore that point Neal didn’t laugh when a visitor jokingly suggested the MIAA is due for a name change, the word “athletics” in its title being outdated. Instead, he took a moment to ponder the thought.
“No one has suggested we change our name, but it would make good sense,” he replied.
Conducting postseason tournaments remains the MIAA’s most visible undertaking and accounts for about 75 percent of its annual revenue. There’s more to it than in the early years, though, because of a huge increase in participation by girls (mirroring a national trend) and the growth of sports such as soccer, indoor track and lacrosse, particularly in Central and Western Massachusetts.
Regulating athletics is another responsibility the founding fathers bestowed on the MIAA, but Neal estimated less than 5 percent of the organization’s resources are now devoted to that area. With the tournaments lasting a total of 12 weeks or so, that leaves a lot of free time for an administrative staff that numbers about 20.
It’s time, the MIAA believes, that is well spent.
Starting in the mid-1980s, the organization aggressively moved into an area it refers to as “educational athletics.” The lessons of leadership, teamwork and sportsmanship that had traditionally been viewed as natural byproducts of the sporting experience would no longer be taken for granted. Nor would the idea athletes were any less immune to alcohol or drug abuse than the general student population, all of which led to the development of so-called wellness programs.
There were 213,073 participants in MIAA athletic programs — a figure that ranked 11th in the nation — in 2006-07 according to a survey by the National Federation of State High School Associations. Virtually all of them are exposed to some level of sportsmanship, leadership and wellness education through mandatory meetings each prospective athlete must attend at his or her school prior to the start of each season.
“Very sound and cutting edge, particularly when you’re looking at athletics as a classroom,” said Brian Callaghan, a former athletic director and current assistant principal at Westboro High School.
“The kids love that stuff,” said Russ Davis, who has coached soccer, basketball and softball at Hudson High School. “I really think those programs are worthwhile. Coaches get upset because they don’t back coaches, but what they do for the kids is outstanding. It really is.”
The MIAA has held the Sportsmanship Summit for the last 14 years, the daylong affair drawing more than 1,000 participants. The audience, which pays $40 to $50 each to attend, includes school administrators, athletic directors, coaches and, perhaps most important, the MIAA’s target audience of student-athlete leaders.
In an effort to get more feedback from student athletes the MIAA initiated a Student Ambassadors program this year. Each member school was eligible to have two students participate with the criteria being they had to include a junior and a senior and a boy and a girl.
Senior-to-be Paul Zapantis was one of two representatives from Clinton High School. Every couple of months the Mid-Wach League schools participating in the program met in Hudson where the students, accompanied by their respective athletic directors, would sound off on all manner of topics while an MIAA representative took notes.
“We definitely got to voice our concerns,” said Mr. Zapantis, a member of the Clinton Gaels’ football and baseball teams. “I think they did listen. Some of the new rules we saw, kids didn’t agree with them. We’d tell (assistant director of student services) Pete Smith why we thought they were wrong and why they were right and he’d take that information back to the head guys.”
Despite its full-fledged commitment, which includes doling out more than $400,000 the last two years (with revenue of $203,000), the question remains whether the MIAA’s efforts are necessary or worth the return on the investment. Health education already is taught in schools and several coaches pointed out their profession has traditionally stressed the virtues of leadership, sportsmanship and teamwork on a daily basis during the season.
Mr. Zapantis guessed about 50 percent of his schoolmates “know about the MIAA” and what it stands for. MIAA president Jim Peters admitted the overall impact of “educational athletics” is difficult to measure.
“It’s like anything else, we’re getting to some,” said Mr. Peters, the principal at Monson High School. “Across the board probably not (a dramatic change), but I think were getting to more than we did 20 years ago. That’s just my belief. I do think we’re coming along with those initiatives across the state and we have to keep plugging away.”
In the last 10 years, the MIAA has plunged into the area of educating principals, athletic directors and coaches through workshops and clinics, many of them mandatory.
“The MIAA is really serving as a flagship for professional development across the commonwealth,” said Sean Gilrein, a member of the nonprofit organization’s board of directors and the Dudley-Charlton school superintendent. “That’s essential.”
The motivation, MIAA representatives said, comes from a decline in the number of qualified principals, athletic directors and coaches entering the field over the last decade.
According to Mr. Neal, there is statistically a complete turnover in the principals and athletic directors at the organization’s 371 member schools every 5-1/2 years. Although schools ultimately fill those positions, “In many cases it’s not what they were hoping to get, but the best person available,” MIAA spokesman Paul Wetzel said.
Mr. Callaghan agreed. “I can personally attest to that,” he said, noting more sports and fewer quality candidates has made for a less-than-desirable situation.
Starting in 1998, the MIAA began requiring first-time high school coaches to take a coaches’ education course within one year of being hired. The course emphasizes creating a positive overall experience for student-athletes, one that places less importance on winning.
According to the MIAA, about 600 coaches received training in each of the past three years.
“It’s part of the mentality that started about 10 years ago, to create winning attitudes rather than winning programs,” Mr. Callaghan said.
Not everyone agrees with the MIAA’s foray into professional development.
“My own personal opinion is I think that’s best left to the schools,” Oxford Superintendent of Schools Ernest Boss said.
And for all the effort placed on diminishing the importance of winning, well, nice try, said one longtime, multi-sport coach.
“The kids play athletics to win,” said Mr. Davis, who coached the Hudson softball team to its third straight Division 2 state final appearance last weekend. “I don’t care what they say, there’s not a kid who goes out there (just) to have fun. Fun is part of it, but ask any kid and they’ll tell you its more enjoyable to be on a winning team than a losing team.”