Echoes of a preseason car accident

Nov. 11, 2004, midnight | By Renee Park | 16 years, 2 months ago

Vague athletic policies cause confusion

Junior James Gillette's accident during a preseason wrestling run in early October (see "Struggling..." page 14) has brought the vagueness of MCPS athletic policies to light.

Gillette was injured while crossing Colesville Road when a car took a blind turn and hit him, fracturing his femur and inducing a severe concussion.
Due to the seriousness of the incident, school administration has reemphasized that while athletic teams are permitted to train off school grounds, it is recommended that they remain on the campus.

The accident occurred during a "captain's practice," which Blair officials and a state official considered to be within state rules. However, MCPS Coordinator of Athletics William Beattie said that it was "blatantly illegal" to have a preseason captain's practice. According to the Maryland Public Secondary Schools Athletic Association (MPSSAA) Handbook, practices are confined to the "seasonal limitations" dependent on each sport.

However, nowhere does the MPSSAA strictly outline what constitutes a practice and which exceptions are allowed. Beattie said a practice is defined by several factors, including whether it is an organized session, how many students attend, how often they attend and who calls the session. In a practice, the members must "come with a predetermined agenda with the expectation to meet." Many of these factors can be evaluated subjectively.

Due to the circumstances that vary from team to team and the ambiguities defining out-of-season practices, most teams fall into a blurry zone left open to interpretation.

Gillette and senior Andrew Wallis, the co-captains of the wrestling team, both acknowledged that they didn't know the policy concerning preseason practices. Calling their preseason sessions "captain's practices," they ran miles and did crunches and sit-ups.

Contrary to Beattie, Blair Athletic Director Dale Miller categorized Gillette's practice as a conditioning session that adhered to state guidelines. "Most teams do [condition] to get in shape by themselves," Miller explained. "It was a volunteer type of situation where you were not obligated to come."
Maryland State Department of Education Executive Director of Interscholastic Athletics Ned Sparks agreed, saying the practice seemed permissible but adding that Beattie may have been correct, as the practice fell in a "gray area" that would require further investigation for a definite answer. "They were conditioning," Sparks explained. "That's a laudable thing that coaches encourage."

Beattie, Miller and Sparks all keep updated of state athletic policies and are considered equally good sources for information on state mandates. But the disparity between their responses highlights how "gray" this issue can be.
By state standards, many Blair teams, not only wrestling, are in this gray area. Senior Julia Simon-Mishel, a member of the girls' softball team, called the state rules "ineffective" because coaches around the county have found ways to "push boundaries and walk a fine line."

In fact, most Blair athletes said they were unaware that many types of preseason practices are not permitted; they believed preseason practices were only forbidden if a coach was present—a fairly clear-cut rule for coaches and athletes.

According to Blair girls' varsity softball coach Louis Hoelman, many MCPS teams sign up in recreational community teams during the off-season to improve their skills and stay in shape. This gives school athletes the opportunity to play together almost year-round, which is permitted by the state. However, school coaches are not allowed to coach club teams that have more than 80 percent of their school team's members, said Sparks.

More irregularities occur in this rule because the MPSSAA Handbook only states that "a coach may not coach a team representing the coach's school beyond a sports season." The 80-percent limit is not clearly written in the state handbook, although it is a set rule passed down to school officials. This and other unknown details cause coaches like Hoelman to believe the limit is 70 percent, or even another number.

Hoelman cited the Gaithersburg High School girls' varsity softball team, which composes over 50 percent of a club team, as an example of a team that remains within limits but still has a large number of school players. Blair girls' softball actually made up around 90 percent of their summer league team, which did not allow Hoelman to coach, although he remained in touch with the parents in charge.

However, Hoelman said some coaches discreetly break the rules. He named some MCPS coaches who are not allowed to coach their players in club teams because of the 80-percent rule, but still attend games, sit behind the bench and give the club coach directions or yell them out themselves.

While the state rules concerning off-season practices were instated to protect players from obsessive coaches and give each team a fair start, coaches say they disagree with the rule because it is ineffective in accomplishing its goal but effective enough to hurt some players.

"I don't think coaches who are willing to put in the time should be penalized," explained Hoelman. He pointed out that some good athletes opt to attend private schools in high school because the schools do not restrict how long or with whom an athlete practices and plays.

Hoelman wants the rule dissolved to protect players from being unprepared physically for competitive seasons. "Everyone who has been conditioning will be stronger. Is it safe for a kid who's playing not to condition preseason?" asked Hoelman. "It's not even safe for [my team] to be out there if they haven't picked up a ball until March 1."

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Renee Park. Renee is a senior in the Magnet Program (finally!) and is psyched about a brand new year of Chips, Chips and more Chips! She's currently wondering why she took MathPhys with Silver Chips and how soon she'll die, but meanwhile, Renee's enjoying writing, reading, studying … More »

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