By Jack Roberts
MHSAA Executive Director
One of the responsibilities that schools have asked organizations like the MHSAA to execute is the management of transfer student eligibility. Historically, many associations have linked eligibility to residence ... thus, for some the regulation has been called the “Residency Rule” or “Transfer/Residency Rule,” not merely the “Transfer Rule.”
Over the years, as society became more mobile and families less stable, these rules became more and more complicated; and now, for most state high school associations, this is the regulation that consumes the most (or second) most pages of their handbooks. Over the years, this has also been the regulation most frequently challenged in court.
Over the years, some states have relaxed their transfer rule and others have refined their transfer rule. In either case, the transfer rule remains an imperfect rule, an imperfect net. Sometimes this net snags students who should not be made ineligible, and for those situations all associations have arranged some kind of waiver or appeal process.
And sometimes, and much less easily solved, the net fails to catch the situations it really should ... the transfers that are not hardship related or the result of some very compelling educational need, but those that are obviously for athletic reasons. It is those that we have been most focused on in Michigan.
Our first effort to get at the most problematic transfers was the adoption for the 1997-98 school year of what we called the “Athletic-MOTIVATED Transfer Rule” ... Regulation I, Section 9(E). Examples of an athletic-motivated transfer are included in the rule. The rule only applies to transfer students who do NOT meet any of the stated exceptions for immediate eligibility and are ineligible for one semester under our basic transfer rule. They become ineligible for 180 scheduled school days if there is a finding that the transfer was more for athletics than any other compelling reason.
This effort has not been successful enough because it requires a school that loses a student to another school to promptly allege to the MHSAA office, with supporting documentation, that the transfer was more for athletic reasons than any other compelling reason. The receiving school then must respond to those allegations. Then the executive director makes the decision. The unfortunate result of applying this rule is that it usually causes hard feelings between the schools, and hard feelings toward the executive director by the school decided against. In 17 years, schools have invoked this rule only 45 times.
Our more recent effort to address the most egregious athletic transfers resulted from requests from the coaches associations for wrestling and basketball, which were watching too many students change schools for athletic reasons, usually related to an out-of-season coaching relationship. The new rule – the “Athletic-RELATED Transfer Rule” – is Regulation I, Section 9(F). The difference between Section 9(E) and the newer Section 9(F) is that in 9(F) one school does not have to make and document allegations before staff can act. If MHSAA staff discover or are informed of any of the circumstances listed in 9(F), we can act. Again, the rule only applies to those transfer students whose circumstances do NOT meet one of the automatic exceptions. It applies only to students who are ineligible for a semester under the basic transfer rule. If there is a finding that one of the athletic related “links” exists (usually an out-of-season coaching relationship), then this transfer student who would be ineligible for one semester is made ineligible for 180 scheduled school days.
So far, it appears that 9(F) may be a better deterrent than 9(E). It has been referenced when students are rumored to be transferring, and it has stopped many of those transfers before they occur. We expect 9(F) to be an even better deterrent in 2015-16 because the rule has been broadened to apply to administrators and parents (not just coaches) and to address directing and coordinating athletic activities (not just coaching).
We have said that if this latest effort does not succeed in slowing athletic transfers, then the next step is 180 days of ineligibility – at least in any sport the student played in high school previously – for all transfer students who do not qualify for an exception that permits immediate play. I fear that would catch far too many students who should not be withheld so long from competition and could lead to a period like the early 1980s when the MHSAA, at the request of the state principals association, adopted the core of the transfer rule we have today and which resulted in a period of busiest litigation for the MHSAA when, at one time, the association had more than a dozen cases in court simultaneously on transfer matters. We’ve got to make the current rules work – with tweaks, perhaps; but not with radical revision.