Prep Football

Private vs. public an issue in high school athletics

HS journalism: Do private schools have an advantage?

Iowa City West’s Dillon Doyle (9) holds up the runner-up trophy after the Class 4A state championship football game at the UNI-Dome in Cedar Falls on Nov. 17. West lost to West Des Moines Dowling, a team some think recruits to enhance its athletics programs. (Stephen Mally/The Gazette)
Iowa City West’s Dillon Doyle (9) holds up the runner-up trophy after the Class 4A state championship football game at the UNI-Dome in Cedar Falls on Nov. 17. West lost to West Des Moines Dowling, a team some think recruits to enhance its athletics programs. (Stephen Mally/The Gazette)

IOWA CITY — In October, after a crushing defeat in the state championship football game, Iowa City West players took to Twitter to criticize the opposing team, West Des Moines Dowling.

The criticism wasn’t about the refs or poor sportsmanship, but because of the number of Dowling’s transfers who the West players believed had had their tuition paid by the school so that they could play sports.

“You’re talking like your recruits didn’t win you the game ... If every team in the state could pull in players by throwing their wallet at them, the story might be different. Stay humble famo. #homegrownvshandpicked,” West senior Austin Geasland tweeted.

Dowling head football coach and athletics director Tom Wilson said his school does not give out athletic scholarships.

“I will never reach out to someone first, nor will I meet with them off campus,” Wilson said. “If they have an interest in us, then they need to reach out to us and come to our campus to meet.”

However, although Dowling and other private schools may not officially sponsor their athletes financially, the athletic dominance of private schools in Iowa has only increased in recent years, and with no signs of a change in pace. Dowling’s state football win was its sixth trip to the finals in eight years, and its fifth win.

This past summer, the Clas 1A, 2A and 3A baseball state champions were private Catholic schools. The nine Catholic schools that qualified for the state baseball tournament went 13-2 against public schools. Last volleyball season, a private school was in the finals in every class except one.

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These trends are evident within every sport, every class, every conference and every district across the state of Iowa, which has led people to ask themselves how they may be changed. How can we literally level the playing field?

Although private schools may not be officially recruiting athletes, Wilson suggests the practice may not be entirely nonexistent.

“Do we have parents, alumni, students possibly trying to convince friends from other schools to come to Dowling? No doubt and this happens everywhere,” Wilson said. “However, it is not something led by our school.”

Jeff Linder, a sports writer for The Gazette who focuses on high school athletics, has noticed this trend as well.

“I think there may be some parental recruiting (along the lines of) ‘Hey, you play with my kid in club ball, why don’t you come play high school ball with us too?’” he said. “‘We are better than the program you are currently at. Maybe you would be better or be seen better if we form a super team.’”

No matter how it happens, or who’s responsible for it, people like West senior Witt Harberts believe any form of recruiting is unfair.

“I think it’s completely unfair to be able to just go and pluck the athletes that you want that go to a public school because you want them to come to your school, since it makes your school look better and you might win a state championship,” Harberts said. “Then you have to play against the public schools who are at a severe disadvantage.”

Natalie Niemeyer, softball coach at Des Moines East High School, has long been disconcerted by another advantage she deems private schools have over public ones. In her experience, she has seen schools like Xavier be able to play Class 5A Mississippi Valley Conference teams throughout the regular season and then move down to Class 4A or even 3A during the playoffs.

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“That’s something that I’ve always thought was really unfair because they’ve played this really great competition all season, so no wonder they go to state all the time,” Niemeyer said.

Wilson believes the largest factor to his team’s consistent success is its talent and hard work. He also thinks private-school domination doesn’t exist because “success isn’t disproportionately experienced by private schools in the state.”

“I think it is important to dig in the history and I think you will see an ebb and flow of success between public and private,” he said. “I had this conversation with the girls’ union a few years ago. I know we have had talented kids that work hard, plus we have had some fortunate breaks.”

Linder believes there’s more to the perpetual success of private schools in athletics than that. He has concluded private school athletic domination is a reflection of the associated socio-economic environments in which their players dwell.

“I think the correlation is more socioeconomic than public versus private,” he said. “Valley, Waukee, Linn-Mar are some of the more affluent school districts (and they are very successful in sports), so I think it’s more that, than the public-private thing.”

Niemeyer teaches at Des Moines East. She said most of her students play a sport for the first time when it’s offered in middle school. She sees the gap between public and private school athletics continuing to widen because a larger percentage of families at private schools are able to afford club athletics for their children.

“When you start that young and you’re playing on these competitive teams that are a priority for you and your family, you have an advantage for sure,” she said. “If all those kids funnel into the same school, then obviously they’re going to be very good.”

Linder agrees that not all inequities lie on the borders of public and private schools. Athletes who open enroll in order to transfer between school districts is something he sees quite often, and he doesn’t agree with it.

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“I don’t like open enrollment at all. If you want to move to another school that’s your business, but as far as open enrollment I’m not a big advocate of that at all,” Linder said. “I think if an open enrollment deal was made in which (an open-enrolling athlete) would be ineligible for a full year instead of 90 days and made ineligible immediately that might alleviate some of that. I don’t think that would be a bad idea.”

The IGHSAU and IHSAA General Transfer rule states that “a student who transfers ... from a school to another school ... shall be ineligible to compete in varsity interscholastic athletics for a period of 90 consecutive school days.”

The Iowa City Community School District has instituted a rule that states varsity athletes must sit out a year if they transfer within the district.

No matter how many regulations the unions put in place in their ongoing attempt to control unfair advantages, Linder believes there’s “nothing the association can do about it.” So, for now at least, he thinks schools that haven’t been seeing success will just have to “hang in there” for the time being.

“I think some schools are just going to have to try harder to keep the field at a reasonable level,” he said. “The Cedar Rapids schools, Waterloo schools, et cetera, are just going to have to keep plugging away and doing the best with what they’ve got.”

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