Bills Seek Extra Eligibility Year For High School Athletes

BERLIN — In yet another odd fallout from the pandemic, a pair of state lawmakers have proposed bills that, if approved, would add another year of eligibility for student-athletes whose high school careers have been cut short by the pandemic.

State Senator Justin Ready and House Delegate Haven Shoemaker, both Republicans of Carroll County, have introduced sister bills in the General Assembly that would allow graduating senior student-athletes who have missed their final year of eligibility because of COVID to return the following year to complete their senior seasons under certain criteria. Locally, fall sports were postponed and will resume this weekend. Winter sports were eliminated altogether and will not be made up. Spring sports, which would be in full swing by now, will play an abbreviated season later this spring.

The bills, introduced in the Senate and House by Ready and Shoemaker respectively, are in response to the unusual circumstances of the last year and the sacrifices many student-athletes have made. To be eligible, a student-athlete would have to have been enrolled in a state public school during the 2020-2021 school year and graduate in 2021.

The eligibility waiver would be for graduating students in the 2020-2021 year only and they would have to meet the academic requirements, age restrictions and graduate eligibility rules spelled out by the Maryland Public Secondary Schools Athletic Association (MPSSAA). A returning athlete would only be allowed to participate in a sport at the public school from which he or she graduated, and the athlete could be enrolled at an institution of higher learning while participating in a sport at the high school level.

“High school sports mean so much to all of our communities as well as the student-athletes who have worked for years to get where they are,” said Ready. “We want student-athletes to have the opportunity to finish their high school athletic careers properly.”

Shoemaker pointed out many student-athletes across the state were on track for college scholarships in their respective sports, only to see their seasons eliminated or cut back.

“The students that were forced to sacrifice all or most of their final year of high school sports deserve the opportunity to enjoy their final season, as well as compete for scholarships that may have been lost due to their inability to play,” he said.

Typical MPSSAA rules have strict starting and ending times for fall, winter and spring sports seasons, but this year has been far from typical. Because of ongoing COVID restrictions, fall sports teams, such as football and soccer, only recently began practicing for what will be an abbreviated season this spring.

For example, Stephen Decatur’s varsity football team opens its short, seven-game season on Friday on the road against Parkside. Decatur’s boys’ varsity soccer team opens what will certainly be an unusual season at home on Friday against Bennett.

Meanwhile, traditional spring sports, such as baseball, softball and lacrosse, for example, will also play a shortened season later this spring. Winter sports, such as basketball and wrestling, for example, were wiped out altogether this year. The spring sports teams can begin practicing on April 17 and their seasons will span six weeks from May 7 through June 19.

While the intent of the sister legislation appears to have merit, the bills are not without their detractors. For example, he Maryland Association of Boards of Education (MABE) opposes the legislation. MABE Director of Governmental Relations John Woolums provided written testimony against House Bill 817, for example.

“House Bill 817 would disrupt this balance by introducing a significant separation between the status of high school athletes who are no longer enrolled students, the enrolled students in the educational setting, and the sports team on which the students and non-students are participating,” he said.

Locally, Stephen Decatur wrestling coach Todd Martinek said he could support the proposal under the right circumstances. Martinek’s team was one of the winter sports teams that had its interscholastic schedule wiped out this year and many of his athletes would be getting serious looks from colleges and universities. To be fair, many of the Decatur wrestlers continued to compete in various tournaments around the region.

“As long as taxpayers don’t have to foot the bill and they have to maintain some academic standard — say a 2.0 at a community college, I’m in favor of it as long as they are not 20 years old,” he said. “The MPSSAA allows 19-year-old currently, so I don’t want to see a 14-year-old freshman against a 20-year-old. We allow 19 years old as the max, so I’m okay with continuing that.”

Martinek also took off his coaching hat and put on his teaching hat.

“Too much emphasis is put on athletics- parents, the congressman who proposed this,” he said. “Kids should focus their energies on their academic futures. About 99% of them will have to earn a living in something other than athletics.”

About The Author: Shawn Soper

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Shawn Soper has been with The Dispatch since 2000. He began as a staff writer covering various local government beats and general stories. His current positions include managing editor and sports editor. Growing up in Baltimore before moving to Ocean City full time three decades ago, Soper graduated from Loch Raven High School in 1981 and from Towson University in 1985 with degrees in mass communications with a journalism concentration and history.