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Ohio high school football: OHSAA compromise plan for playoffs announced

Spurred on by Ohio's private high schools enjoying outsized success in the postseason, many districts proposed separating public and private schools in the playoffs. The OHSAA has announced a new plan to keep the playoffs combined, while using multipliers to even the playing field.

Ohio Stadium will host future OHSAA championship games.
Ohio Stadium will host future OHSAA championship games.

Ohio's private schools make up only about 17% of the membership of the OHSAA, Ohio's high school sport governing body, but have won over 40% of the state titles since 1999. Many public schools, especially smaller public schools, have complained that the current division setup, which separates schools by population, gives private schools an unfair advantage, given their selective enrollment and the ability to add students outside of traditional enrollment boundaries. Many private school athletic administrators have countered that multiple public schools offer open-enrollment as well, and that publics typically enjoy better financing and resources. The argument eventually grew into a proposal to completely separate public and private schools in the postseason, in the name of preserving fair play.

The OHSAA thinks they have finally found a solution to appease everybody. Per the Columbus Dispatch:

The nine-member OHSAA Board of Directors unanimously approved a proposal from its competitive-balance committee that would increase enrollment figures for public and private schools alike for having athletes on their rosters who do not live within their district boundaries.

A vote by school principals will be conducted May 1-15, with results announced May 16. If passed, the referendum would go into effect in the 2015-16 school year.

“All of us are joining hands to ensure that this new proposal passes,” OHSAA commissioner Dan Ross said.

The general principal is that students who live outside of the district boundaries will be assigned a sport-specific multiplier, regardless of whether they are public or private. Hypothetically then, a small private school that would compete in the smallest division, but has athletes who live three towns over, may be forced to compete "up" a division or two. The Dispatch gives a local example using two of the more prominent athletic schools in Columbus:

Parochial schools who draw from a large area and public schools with open enrollment would fall under the same umbrella. For example, DeSales — which is considered in Brookhaven’s attendance zone — would have its sports count, used to determine divisions for tournament, increased to account for athletes living outside that boundary. The same formula would apply to Brookhaven athletes not in that attendance zone.

This move would be unlikely to dramatically impact the largest private schools in the state, like Cleveland St.Ignatius, as they would likely be competing in the highest division in a sport anyway, but it could impact several of the private schools in Columbus, from DeSales and Watterson to tiny Columbus Academy or Newark Catholic if they draw students from a wide net. Smaller public schools appear to be the big winner.

The plan isn't without hiccups. Perhaps the biggest problem is the fact that schools may not know what division they're in until a month into the season, as officials will need time to finalize rosters. That could make scheduling for football, where playoff spots are awarded in part on strength of schedule, a bigger headache. The OHSAA will likely need to time to fine tune the math, determining which sports need different multipliers. They have already said that schools that do not meet a predetermined competitiveness standard may not be forced to move up a division should they have open enrollment. The devil is in those details.

For those who want to continue to see high quality and competitive sports in Ohio, especially football, these adjustments should come as welcome news. It was clear that private and larger urban districts enjoyed a particular advantage in their ability to get around the enrollment loophole, and this change could go a long way towards closing that gap. Breaking everybody apart would have risked diluting the product for not just talent evaluators and fans, but for the students themselves.

Keeping publics and privates together is better for fans, better for talent development, and better for student athletes as well.