Pride swells in Louis Spain when he talks about his days at Gainesville High School. It’s plain to see how much love the centerfielder on the 1949 state championship team has for his alma mater.
In Spain’s time, loyalty to your school was the rule. These days, in a time when athletes regularly bounce from school to school without regard for previous allegiances, it’s more like the exception.
That’s too bad ... right?
The topic of transfers in high school athletics isn’t one easily acknowledged in polite conversation. On Internet message boards, under a cloak of anonymity, debates rage for weeks on end, usually spiraling downward into name-calling and finger-pointing. All of which is pointless, and almost always hypocritical. Most area high schools that have enjoyed success — especially in football — have benefitted in recent years from a high-profile move-in or transfer student.
And it’s not an issue unique to Hall County. You could even argue that local schools are still far behind the Gwinnett County curve.
But should it even be an issue at all?
Is it considered cheating when a high school’s graduation rate is bolstered by bright move-ins? Is the quality of a school play cheapened if the lead role goes to a out-of-district student?
Rhetorical questions, because the answer, of course, would be no. When a family decides to move for the sake of a better academic situation for their child, nobody bats an eye — nor should they.
Then why are athletics held to a different standard? Why does it cause moral outrage among fans when a 17-year-old switches schools?
An easy answer would be that the quality of education trumps the quality of an athletic program when it comes to a student’s future. Can’t argue with that, at least not on face value alone.
But if a kid’s best shot at a college scholarship is found on the fields of athletic competition, shouldn’t he or she be free to pursue that by any legal means necessary? As Georgia High School Association executive director Ralph Swearngin pointed out, unregulated school choice legislation is being pushed by lawmakers all over the country.
A better answer to the different standard question would be that people are more passionate about win/loss records than they are pass/fail. For better or worse, banners hanging in the high school gyms tout region championships, not standardized test scores.
"Something has gone wrong with our priorities."
That’s what Hall County schools superintendent Will Schofield had to say on the matter. And that’s not coming from a bookish adminstrator who doesn’t properly value athletics. Schofield’s a former high school athlete and coach.
"Some of the finest experiences I’ve ever had as a student had to do with athletics," he said. "Some of the best teaching I ever did was on athletic fields, but my goodness, sometimes I think we lose our perspective."
Now we’re getting closer to the heart of the matter.
For one thing, whether or not playing at a certain school enhances the likelihood of landing a scholarship is highly debatable. In this day and age of ubiquitous Internet recruiting services and easy-to-circulate highlight videos, true college-caliber athletes don’t go undiscovered.
So not only is all this school-hopping unnecessary, it’s a germ that infects and sickens high school athletics.
Loyalty is the first casualty, but this is bigger than the death of school spirit. It’s closer to a loss of instutional control; the tail wagging the dog.
Discipline will be the next to fall. Area coaches say it’s already happening.
A player acts up, gets suspended, and two weeks later he’s lining up in a different uniform. Don’t give him the playing time he wants, he’ll find another program that will.
Schofield said the Hall County Board of Education hopes to curb the transfer trend through the influence of a sportsmanship committee that’s in the works — and he’d like to do more.
"I could fully support that if you transfer schools and you have not made a geographic move of a certain number of miles, whether it’s 50 or 75, then you have to sit out a year. That would take care of the vast majority of the problem, because you wouldn’t have any of this going over the county line because you’re unhappy; or because you think another team may go 9-2 instead of 5-6.
"I think it may be time for the state to consider something like that."
But a concrete rules change is out of his hands, and the GHSA is showing no inclination toward beef up it’s transfer eligibility rules.
Swearngin admitted that the number of transfers has been on the rise in Georgia every year since 1992, and that it’s become a problem. But he didn’t sound ready to crack down.
"I would find that very inconsistent with our living in a free country," Swearngin said of a rule change similar to the one Schofield mentioned. "As a citizen of the United States, I ought to be able to move where ever I want to move. It might solve it in one county or another, but I’m not sure that would solve everybody’s problem."
Unfortunately, there’s no easy answer here. It’s either further restrict people’s freedom of choice or let the current pattern continue until we end up with high school free agents for hire.
Neither option is particularly appealing, but it comes down to this: Which sickens you more?
I find myself siding with Schofield.
"I didn’t really believe it at first, but yes, it has grown into a big problem," he said. "When people have come to a point that they’ll sell their home and move because they are mad at coach or didn’t think their child got enough playing time, something has gone awry."
Brent Holloway is the sports editor for The Times. His column appears each Friday and he can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org