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ISSUE 118 VOL 10 PUBLISHED 12/3/2004

Recruiting in high schools?

By Joel Stjernholm
Contributing Writer

Friday, December 3, 2004

The Minnetonka Skippers played the Wayzata Trojans for the 5A Minnesota State High School football championship last Friday, a duel between two Classic Lake Conference athletic powerhouses. Minnetonka emerged victorious 23-14, but before we congratulate the Skippers, let us first examine their rather curious path to victory.

Before the 2002 football season began, Minnetonka brought in head coach Dave Nelson from Blaine, formerly one of the best football programs in the state. Nelson led an outstanding staff of 25 coaches, some of whom have worked with Florida State, the Dallas Cowboys and the Minnesota Vikings. Nelson and his exceptional coaching staff brought the Minnetonka program from cupcake to champ standing in only two short years, a tribute to their exceptional coaching acumen.

However, sources familiar with Minnetonka'’s program add a disheartening twist to the tale. They allege that agents of the Minnetonka program attempted to recruit at least one player for their championship team. Recruiting is clearly necessary in college athletics, but high school teams should be comprised of neighborhood athletes playing for camaraderie, fun and community pride.

To be fair, many of the Skippers'’ talented players acquired their athletic prowess through long sessions in the school’'s weight room and grueling conditioning programs that would make the average bear howl. However, Minnetonka'’s recruiting practices undermine those legitimate efforts and the team’'s championship glory. Officials at the Minnesota State High School League (MSHSL) office were combative and elusive when asked to comment about these allegations, even though other Classic Lake participants, including some of the Skippers'’ own, have questioned Minnetonka’'s recruiting practices.

The MSHSL'’s policies regarding such violations are woefully inadequate. Even if a team were officially sanctioned for cheating, the greatest penalty assessed by state officials would be to declare recruited players ineligible for competition. However, that player would be ineligible only if he admitted to being recruited, so there is no genuine motivation for players to disclose this information.

Also, the MSHSL allows athletes who “open enroll” at a particular school (those who choose to attend a school outside their home district) to be eligible immediately for competition. Many states require players to miss an entire year of athletic competition after transferring through open enrollment, drastically reducing the prevalence of this illegal practice.

And how does the state investigate such cases of alleged recruiting? According to league officials, they simply ask. Not exactly the most effective method of rule enforcement.

Amazingly, even if Minnetonka’'s recruiting efforts had been exposed prior to this season, they would not have been penalized. According to MSHSL rules, there is no consequence for attempting to recruit a player if the effort is unsuccessful.

In this age of open enrollment and high school athletes shopping for the best teams, how can Minnesota athletic officials prevent recruiting? One solution is to legalize recruiting and require transfers, recruited or not, to forgo a year of competition if they attend a school outside of their home district. This would eliminate the need for league officials to investigate all allegations, but would also penalize those whose motivations for transferring are indeed pure.

However, the former changes would permit recruiting, and high school teams could potentially rely on massive (albeit farsighted) recruiting efforts to build elite programs.

Another solution is to ban teams caught conducting illegal recruiting operations from competing in section and state level competition. Schools whose boosters and coaches recruit should be punished, and banning those teams from higher level competition for one year would be a stiff enough penalty to prevent coaches and boosters with any sense of self-preservation from recruiting.

Though the recruiting attempt mentioned in this article was unsuccessful, it is very feasible that other offers were made and accepted. The MHSHL must adjust its rules immediately to preserve the integrity of Minnesota high school athletics.

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