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One can't quite call it The Game of the Century ? though one is tempted ? nor claim that The Whole World Was Watching. One can in good conscience say that the game between Shiloh Christian and Berryville on Sept. 25 was A Game of Unusual Significance in Arkansas High School Football, and that school administrators and coaches across the state were keenly interested. The memory of last year's game between these two teams was on everybody's mind.
Shiloh won that 2008 game 65-0. An embarrassing margin of defeat, to be sure, but Berryville Superintendent Randy Byrd says that it wasn't the score so much …
“In the fourth quarter, when it was 58 to 0, they threw the ball on fourth down instead of punting. I felt like that was a coach's call and not the kids'. The night before, we saw the same behavior at a junior high game. I think the score was 38 to 0. They had the ball within 20 yards of our goal line with 29 seconds left. They called a timeout to set up another score. … It was the sportsmanship we saw at the two games that caused a lot of the issues.”
Like many other public school administrators, Byrd already believed that private schools like Shiloh, a Baptist school at Springdale, had unfair advantages over public schools like Berryville, in football and other areas. The poor sportsmanship he believed he saw from Shiloh stirred him to do something about it. “Not all private schools behave that way,” he says, “but we couldn't single out Shiloh.” (Though Shiloh incurred more ill will later in the season when it beat Gentry 70 to 3 and Clarksville 84 to 14 on its way to the Class 4A state championship.)
Byrd proposed a new rule to the Arkansas Activities Association, which regulates high school athletics in Arkansas. Public schools would continue to compete against private schools during the regular season, but not in the playoff games that decide state championships. The 28 or so private schools of varying sizes that belong to the AAA would have their own playoffs. No longer could a Shiloh or a Pulaski Academy be declared an overall state champion.
Though it may sound extreme, such arrangements already have been adopted in some states, and a few states even separate the public and private schools entirely. People who don't follow high school football closely ? and that's most people who don't have children or grandchildren in high school ? may not be aware that friction between public and private schools has been growing for some time, and not just in Arkansas. National rankings of the top high school teams around the country seem to contain a disproportionate number of private, church-related schools. On Sept. 11 in Florida, Chaminade-Madonna, a Catholic school, beat Pompano Beach, a public school, by a score of 83 to 0, spurring more debate of the private v. public question.
The specter of recruiting looms large in these controversies, though it's seldom spoken of openly and specifically. There's a certain amount of innuendo, very little in the way of direct accusation. Asked if he thinks Shiloh recruits players, Byrd says, “I personally don't know of any case of recruiting.” But when he addressed an AAA meeting in August, he said that 80 percent of the Shiloh student body participated in athletics, and that 17 Shiloh football players were on scholarship. (The AAA does not allow athletic scholarships. It does allow private schools to award scholarships based on financial need.) Byrd also cited Shiloh's remarkable record of winning state championships since its founding in 1976, a record that Shiloh itself displays on its web site. He added that private schools, which account for about 8 percent of the AAA membership, had won 25 percent of the football and basketball championships in the 2008-09 school year.
Occasionally, a public school will be accused of recruiting, of luring players from other schools by offering superior facilities, or winning traditions, or better coaching or maybe even just a better neighborhood. The Arkansas Democrat-Gazette published an article last month about a surprising number of transfers of football players from one public school to another in Pulaski County. Such transfers are easier in Pulaski County than elsewhere because of court orders relating to desegregation. But transferring from one public school district to another to play football is usually difficult. It requires what AAA executive director Lance Taylor calls “a bona fide move” to the new district. In other words, an athlete must live in the same school district where he plays football.
So the real opportunities for recruiting are at the private schools. They have no attendance boundaries set by law; they can offer financial assistance to students, within limits.
The private schools insist that they don't give athleticscholarships. They give financial aid to some students, but that is given solely on the basis of financial need, they say, and the amount of a student's need ? the difference between what he can pay and what the school costs ? is determined by an independent, third-party agency. The cost varies from school to school, but none of them are cheap. At Shiloh, the annual tuition for a secondary student is $6,990. Skeptics note that the student wouldn't need any financial assistance to attend his local public school, as most kids do. They also note that quite a few of the students who receive financial assistance at the mostly-white private schools happen to be blacks who participate in athletics, usually performing rather well. A young black man is never more visible that when he's the star player for a virtually all-white team in a virtually all-white part of the state. Shiloh's quarterback is such a player. The Arkansas high school football player most highly recruited by colleges this year is a black running back at the predominantly white Little Rock Christian Academy. It's not known whether either of these players is receiving financial assistance ? the AAA says that's private information ? but the assumption they are is strong. Public schools find unpleasant irony in this. Some of the private schools were established, at least in part, to escape the impact of court-ordered desegregation in the public schools. (In Eastern Arkansas, which has the heaviest black population in the state, a few all-white academies were formed and are still in business at places like Marianna and Helena-West Helena. These schools are not members of the AAA. They play against other private, white academies, including several in Mississippi.)
Little Rock Christian, Pulaski Academy and Central Arkansas Christian, all in Pulaski County, are private schools that are complained of in much the same way as Shiloh in Northwest Arkansas. Pulaski Academy has gained something of a national reputation for its habit of never punting. PA always goes for it on fourth down, no matter the team's location on the field or the yardage needed for a first down. PA Coach Kevin Kelley told an interviewer from Sports Illustrated that there's a scientific reason for this, that research has shown that for high school teams, punting the ball, or trying to, is statistically a poorer choice than trying for a first down. Which may be true, but the no-punt philosophy also can lead to high scores against teams with lesser ability. And PA has a reputation, justified or not, for running up the score.
A couple of years back, Little Rock Christian won a state basketball championship with a couple of 6-foot-9 players who hailed from Africa. Other teams were not amused.
Such things were doubtless on the minds of AAA members at the annual meeting in August. After some debate, the proposal for separate playoffs was rejected, 93 for, 114 against. But obviously it had strong support. Obviously, a lot of people would be keeping an eye out for more “bad sportsmanship” in the 2009 season.
The private schools took note. Since the August vote, they've met with AAA director Taylor to discuss ways of reducing tension between the privates and the publics. Taylor said one possibility that's been discussed is a kind of sliding classification. A team like Shiloh could petition for assignment to a higher class when a strong team was expected, a lower class when the good players were gone. Some states allow this, Taylor said.
(While the classification of public schools is based strictly on enrollment, the classification of private schools incorporates a formula intended to compensate for the advantage of being able to pick one's students. As a result, all private schools play in a classification one step above what their enrollment would otherwise dictate. When 4A Shiloh lost to 5A Greenwood, a step above in class, on Sept. 18, it actually lost to a team that would be two steps above it if the same rules of classification were applied to both.)
Taylor has, apparently, spoken to the private schools fairly sternly ? most of his bosses are public, after all ? but he says it's unfair that all the nonpublic schools are being painted with the same brush. “I challenged the privates not just to obey the rules themselves, but to keep an eye on the other schools.”
The AAA was formed in 1912. About 290 high schools belong, some 28 of them non-public. The member schools make the rules, a representative from each school being allowed to vote on every proposed change. The school representatives are always administrators ? superintendents or principals ? and not coaches. Coaches tend to be short-sighted, Taylor said, not looking beyond their own tenure.
The AAA firmly prohibits recruiting, Taylor says ? by coaches, by boosters, by anybody. That recruiting is still suspected at times, that some players attend schools they might not have been expected to attend, Taylor thinks may be because “In the old days, there was a lot of loyalty between the community and the school. Now, a lot of people look at what's available for their kids and they go where they think the greatest advantage lies.”
Greg Jones, dean of the Shiloh secondary school, doesn't look at the 2008 Shiloh-Berryville game the same way Randy Byrd does, naturally. “We did a lot of things to keep the score down ? running instead of passing, pulling starters,” Jones says. But he recognizes the reality that public schools are upset, and there are a lot more of them. The sliding classification scale might be the answer, he said, but “Whatever we do, we want peace. If moving up a classification or two would do it, we're agreeable.”
None of the private schools likes the idea of separate playoffs. There's little glory in being the champion of a couple of dozen schools, most of them small and little-known, some too small to even field a football team.
Gary Arnold, head of school at Little Rock Christian, thinks this season will be a good test of sportsmanship all around ? “Both sides are trying to understand the perspectives of each other.” He sees no reason to separate privates and publics. “It's wonderful that the students of Arkansas can compete together. It seems to be the best thing for the athletes. It unifies the state in ways that separate conferences wouldn't.”
Carter Lambert, president of Central Arkansas Christian, is optimistic too, though conceding that “This is a complex issue, one with a lot of emotions attached.” There's a lot of work going on, he says. “We want to be members in good standing of the AAA. We also want to do what's best for our students.”
Steve Straessle is the principal at Catholic High, the oldest and largest of the private schools and a member of the AAA for 80 years. “We've committed ourselves to working with the AAA staff to find a solution to the issues, and to be good competitors with the public schools,” he says. Catholic generally does not get the bad word-of-mouth that some other private schools get, except for the grumbling that always occurs when a gifted black athlete shows up at a predominantly white private school. Catholic is the only private school that plays in the highest classification ? 7A ? so it would have fewer opportunities to run up the score even if it wanted to, and would be more likely to be repaid in kind.
The Shiloh Saints have a nice high school football stadium, which might be expected since the school is the offspring of two huge Baptist churches, the First Baptist Church of Springdale and, a few miles away at Rogers, The Church at Pinnacle Hills. Both are pastored by the controversial Ronnie Floyd, who seems to relish combat in football as much as in politics. He's on the sidelines alongside his son, Josh, Shiloh's head coach. A sportswriter for The Morning News at Springdale has written a long advance on tonight's game, concluding, “There is little doubt that Shiloh is the class of Class 4A this season. What fellow coaches and AAA officials will closely watch is whether [Josh] Floyd can win with class.”
The public address announcer welcomes the Berryville Bobcats and their followers to Champions Stadium on behalf of Ronnie Floyd, the churches and the school. Berryville looks to have 50 to 75 fans on hand, including Byrd, plus the school band and cheerleaders. The Shiloh side of the stadium is pretty much filled.
Loud, pre-game rock and rap shatters the air. Someone who claims to understand the words says that they're mostly religious in nature, although some have to do with the Saints knocking the stuffing out of the visiting team.
Shiloh proceeds to do just that with Berryville. The score at the end of the first quarter is 27 to 0. Then the Saints pull back. The back-up quarterback comes into the game, and Shiloh settles for one second-quarter score, a field goal, when they surely could have gotten at least one more touchdown. It's 30-zip at the half.
Shiloh starts the second half with a 40-yard pass, but that apparently was just to let the back-up quarterback go long once. More reserves are on the field for Shiloh. The “mercy rule” is invoked, as it always is when one team gets ahead by 35 points. Under the rule, the game clock never stops, so that the game comes to an end more quickly. Shiloh recovers a fumble near the Berryville goal line with some seconds left, but lets the clock expire without running another play.
Randy Byrd says afterward, “I thought the sportsmanship was a lot better this year.” But he still believes some change will have to be made in the way that public and private schools compete. “They could have hung a hundred on us. And every game they play in the conference will be that way” ? that is, one-sided, with Shiloh's starters having to leave early to keep the score down.
“I feel sorry for theirkids,” Byrd said. “They want to compete too.”
Byrd is not alone in believing that Shiloh's letting-up tonight has not solved the larger problem. A casual observer who looks at tonight's teams sees one that's typical of a bunch of teen-age boys from a school the size of Berryville ? a few players with talent perhaps, and a bunch of spindly-legged, slow-footed youngsters who are suited up because they have school spirit, because their friends play football, because their daddies played, not because they have any aptitude for the sport. There's aptitude aplenty on the other side. The Saints are clearly a bunch of athletes.
Charles Scriber, the superintendent of schools at Mountain Home, didn't see this particular game, but he's seen games like it. He supported the Berryville proposal at the AAA meeting in August. Now he says:
“The private schools chose to be private for a particular reason. The reason may be religious or academic or social or for security, but they chose to be separate except in this one area of athletics. Many private schools were created in the '70s to avoid desegregation. Now, when they can recruit minority students who are good football players, it's all right.”
“Whether you call it recruiting or not, if you look at the school population, and then at the percentage of boys who are athletes, it's illogical that some of these private schools could have as many as they do. They have a distinct advantage. They're not subject to public scrutiny, not their finances, not what they do to try to attract quality athletes.”
In other words, the problem of public v. private is not going away.