A task force established by the Kentucky General Assembly is reviewing middle school athletics with the intent of increasing oversight of interscholastic of athletic teams for sixth-, seventh- and eighth-graders. While we are not aware of wiadespread abuses in athletic programs involving middle school students, increased oversight likely would better protect young athletes from injuries and assure middle school coaches are qualified to do their jobs.
The Kentucky High School Athletic Association has statutory authority to govern interscholastic athletics down to the sixth grade level, but with a staff of only 13 and being responsible for oversight of 280 member high schools, the KHSAA has never sought authority from the Kentucky Board of Education to govern middle school athletics.
KHSAA has an annual budget of about $3.5 million and none of it comes from the state General Fund. About $300,000 comes from high school membership dues and nearly all of that goes to purchase catastrophic insurance for high school athletes. It takes in about $1.5 million from the annual high school basketball tournaments and the rest comes in the form of ticket sales to championship events and corporate sponsorships.
Julian Tackett, KHSAA commissioner and a member of the task force, said the organization and the Kentucky Board of Education to which it reports have previously looked at extending its oversight to middle schools, but school districts thought it too expensive to pay the additional dues.
But members of the Kentucky General Assembly apparently think more oversight is needed for middle school sports programs. The task force was created by a bill sponsored by Rep. Bob Damron, D-Nicholasville, and passed by the 2012 General Assembly following requests from groups such as the Kentucky Middle School Football Association and others.
Essentially nonprofit, volunteer groups like the Middle School Football Association want protection from liability concerns and standards for training coaches in best practices and athlete safety.
Former coach and Somerset Superintendent Wilson Sears, a member of the task force, asked the group to include some sort of restriction on the number of games athletes can play in a given period of time. He cited the example of a gifted female sixth-grade student in Somerset who played on the sixth-, seventh- and eighth-grade teams and was clearly the best player on all three teams. She sometimes played four or five games a week until the district instituted a “one-jersey” rule that limited athletes to playing for only one team per week.
While several members of the task force cautioned against creating another layer of administration and added costs, Rep. Car; Rollins, D-Midway, co-chairman of the task force, said some system to monitor middle school sports is needed.
Among the preliminary recommendations are middle school athletes have physical exams before participating; middle schools adhere to the same heat index restrictions as high schools; schools should insure adequate medical coverage for athletes; implement limits on practice and games per week; allow younger athletes to “play up,” or compete at a higher grade level, but not remain eligible for lower grade competition when they do play up; and require coaching training in CPR and concussion recognition and meet minimal qualifications.
The recommendations are reasonable. The same requirements needed for high school coaches and their athletes should apply to younger athletes and those who coach them.
The task force will be meeting later this month to finalize recommendations that would need to be implemented either in statute by the General Assembly or approved by the state Board of Education.
In some sports — cross country, swimming, golf and even basketball — it is not unusual for gifted young athletes to compete on equal footing with older high school athletes, but for the most part, those in the sixth, seventh and eighth grades compete with others of the same age.
While most middle school athletic teams do not compete for state titles, some do. In fact, Johnson County Middle School recently won the state seventh-grade football title while Raceland-Worthington Middle School was runner-up for the eighth-grade title. We congratulate them while saying the additional requirements for middle school athletes, teams and coaches are in order.