AUGUSTA, Maine — In basketball and most other interscholastic sports, the increasingly transitory nature of the general population — including the student-athletes among it — has created more fluidity within team rosters from year to year.
In most cases the causes of transfers between schools are themselves signs of the times. Parents move their families to larger communities with the goal of providing more opportunities for their children. Other families are forced to relocate for job considerations or after being reconfigured by divorce, re-marriage or even homelessness.
Children victimized by bullying also may find comfort by transferring to a different school.
“There’s a variety of reasons,” said Maine Principals’ Association executive director Dick Durost. “Sometimes it’s simply a case where a student and a particular school aren’t a good match, or there might be personal issues where everyone comes to believe it might be best for a student to have a fresh start, or a student and parent aren’t getting along so the student moves out and moves in with another relative, such as an aunt or uncle.
“It’s a much more mobile society today.”
Transfers that tend to generate the most public attention involve high school student-athletes, particularly those who have starred in a high-profile sport such as football or basketball.
“If a young person is switching schools and is not well known in the community, it’s one thing,” said Marty Ryan, a high school athletic administrator at Wells and Kennebunk high schools for 29 years and currently executive director of the Maine Interscholastic Athletic Administrators Association. “But if the student is a well-known athlete it does create some conversation.”
While athletics are not supposed to be a primary reason for a student switching schools, there’s an increasing sense that the practice is being undertaken more frequently in recent years despite policies enacted throughout the country designed to deter such sports-related transfers.
In some cases such moves are seen as the result of student-athletes recruiting each other, particularly those who are teammates in various out-of-season athletic programs ranging from AAU basketball to club soccer and summer baseball — all of which field teams made up of players from different schools.
“Kids follow what they see in college and the NBA,” said Mike McGee, boys varsity basketball coach at Lawrence High School in Fairfield for the last 28 years. “First it was the 3-point line, and now they look at the NBA and see buddies getting together to play for the same team like the Miami Heat with LeBron [James] and [Dwyane] Wade and [Chris] Bosh and they want to do the same thing.”
And the prevalence of social media outlets that provide access to instant and constant communication only enhances those links and can serve as an additional tool in any friend-recruiting-friend efforts.
“I think it happens a lot more now,” said Karen Magnusson, who recently stepped down after five seasons as the girls varsity basketball coach at Cony High School of Augusta. “A lot of kids play AAU together and they’re friends on Facebook and they’re tweeting with each other, so they’re together a lot more in one way or another.”
What may be lost during the transfer process is that the move of a top student-athlete to a different school not only affects that individual’s life, but also the new teammates he joins and those he leaves behind.
“The general premise of the transfer rule is to protect two distinct groups,” said Bob Gardner, executive director of the National Federation of State High School Associations in Indianapolis. “No. 1 is the school that has invested a lot of time, energy and resources to help develop a student-athlete to the point where he or she can be successful, not necessarily in winning but in representing their school instead of walking away and transferring to another school.
“The other part of it is to protect a Student X who may have worked hard for years to become a starting guard at his school and all of a sudden another player transfers into that school who takes that starting spot,” Gardner said. “That is patently unfair to Student X and all the work he has put in to get that starting job.”
The possibility of athletically minded friends transferring to join forces on the same high school team and its effect on the competitive fabric of interscholastic sports is just one reason organizations such as the MPA endeavor to limit the development of “a collection of athletes from multiple programs coming together to form a super team,” said Durost.
“That certainly is not what high school sports are all about.”
Yet trying to maintain a competitive balance by preventing sports-related transfers is no easy task, as evidenced by the wide variety of student-athlete transfer eligibility rules used by different states.
“High school sports in Maine are not about preparing stars for Division I scholarships or the NBA or Major League Baseball,” Durost said. “It’s about providing the 50,000-plus students around Maine who participate in high school sports a fair and fun opportunity, because for the vast majority of them this will mark the end of their playing careers.
“The goal of the transfer rule is to provide a level playing field and fairness between and among schools throughout the state,” Durost said.
No easy solutions
In general, Maine students attend the public school in the school administrative unit where they live.
There are “superintendent’s exceptions,” in which the superintendents from two school administrative units involved may give their approval for a transfer if they find that such a move is in the student’s best interest and the student’s parent approves.
About 1,500 superintendent’s agreements for students in grades K-12 statewide are made annually, according to the state Department of Education.
Under a separate MPA policy governing participation in interscholastic activities at its 153 member schools, a student-athlete who transfers to another school with a corresponding change of residence by a parent or guardian may become eligible to participate in athletics immediately.
In addition, some Maine communities have a school for pupils in kindergarten through eighth grade but don’t have a designated public high school, so those communities often offer pupils their choice of high school to attend, with those students being eligible immediately for interscholastic activities.
“If a student and one or more parents move into one of those communities they would have options if the community provides choice,” said Durost. “But it has to pass the straight-face test. … It can’t be a post office box or an apartment address, they have to reside there.”
A student who transfers schools without a corresponding change of residence or a community-based school choice option may become eligible for interscholastic activities through a transfer waiver approval form in which the sending-school and receiving-school principals certify that the transfer is not primarily for athletic purposes.
Durost and Gardner agree this can be a gray area, with student-athletes and their parents unlikely to admit an athletic motivation — such as the chance to play at a larger school or in the pursuit of a college scholarship — for their transfer request if they know it is not allowed.
“It can put some pressure on the principals,” said Durost.
If one or both of the principals don’t sign the waiver, the student and parent may appeal the case to the MPA’s Eligibility Committee, but such appeals are rare.
Durost said that during his nearly 12 years as MPA executive director, perhaps a half-dozen times a transfer case has reached the Eligibility Committee. He estimated that in 12-15 other cases students and their parents have filled out transfer waiver forms only to withdraw their requests after one or both school principals did not give approval.
The current Maine transfer rule has stood for more than a decade, since 2002, when an MPA ad hoc committee completed two years of work by revising policies on student-athlete transfer eligibility and recruitment.
“What we are working with now is much more of a policy than we had years ago with respect to the transfer policy,” said Ryan.
Durost, who was chairman of the ad hoc committee during its first year of work before becoming the MPA’s executive director, said the transfer rule was changed from sending all cases directly to the Eligibility Committee — a panel of MPA-member school administrators from around the state — to providing the waiver form that allowed member principals to certify that athletics were not the primary reason for the transfer request.
The former practice grew burdensome on the Eligibility Committee as the number of international students transferring to Maine high schools increased and as all students who attended the Maine School of Science and Mathematics magnet school in Limestone that was founded in 1995 also had to go through the panel’s student-athlete transfer eligibility process.
“It was getting so [the committee members] didn’t have time to do their other jobs,” said Durost.
While there has been some informal talk about revisiting the present policy — such as requiring a student who transfers schools without a corresponding change of residence or school-choice option to sit out of interscholastic activities for a given period of time before becoming eligible — Durost said there has been no formal momentum for a change in Maine.
He added that he is against making transfer students ineligible for interscholastic competition.
“I personally believe there’s an adverse effect to penalizing the 98 percent who transfer for reasons that have nothing to do with athletics to get to the 2 percent who might be doing it for those reasons,” Durost said. “What we have may not be the best solution, but the fact is no one’s come up with a better one yet.”
Indeed, there’s no consistent standard being used by states nationwide.
According to a 2010 state eligibility comparison conducted by the National Federation of State High School Associations, some states provide that the transferring student becomes eligible only for subvarsity-level competition for a designated period of time while others incorporate waiting periods ranging from six days to a year before a transferring student may begin varsity competition at the new school, depending on the student’s residency status. Still other states leave athletic eligibility decisions to local conferences or school superintendents.
And within many of the states’ policies is the availability of transfer waivers, as is the case in Maine.
“Because it is a state issue the national federation doesn’t get involved directly in these situations, but it’s something that’s talked about a lot,” said Gardner. “At our meetings members from the state associations are always looking at what other states are doing to see if anyone has come up with a better solution.”
Gardner also sees the student-athlete transfer eligibility issue coming to the forefront more in recent years for political reasons.
“With the advent of school choice in many of our states, some legislators who are well meaning have made it easier for students to jump schools and as a result those transfer numbers have increased,” said Gardner.
“I’ve been doing state association work for the last 28 years, 15 in Indiana and for the last 13 years at the national federation, and I’ve seen the pendulum swing both ways. I’ve seen states make it easier to transfer, and I’ve seen it swing the other way.”
But that ever-swinging pendulum does little in the short term for those who must compete with students who either join or leave their programs.
“I don’t know how you fix it,” said Magnusson.
Not always what it seems
Complicating the issue is the reality that just because a student well known for athletic success wants to change schools doesn’t mean the change is motivated by sports.
Magnusson was a well-regarded student-athlete coming up through the Gardiner school system during the late 1990s, but as her high school years approached other issues came to the forefront.
So one of Magnusson’s aunts researched several other local high school alternatives, among them Hall-Dale of Farmingdale, Kents Hill and Cony.
Magnusson ultimately attended Cony as a high school freshman and remained there through her graduation in 2003, and she maintains that the school’s status as a perennial Class A basketball power wasn’t a pivotal factor in that decision.
“It really wasn’t about athletics with me, that was never really why I looked to go to another school,” she said. “I was really nuts about art at the time, I thought I wanted to be an art teacher, and at Gardiner they didn’t offer four years of art like they did at Cony. I wound up going to Cony because it had a four-year art program and it had AP courses that I was looking forward to taking.
“Plus I could go there and play for a great basketball program, that was a bonus,” she said.
Magnusson’s transfer generated some controversy in her hometown because of her athletic potential — and some resentment lingered after she moved to her new school.
“It was rough. People would yell things at games and some of them had signs, they were upset,” said Magnusson, who went on to play basketball at the University of Maine at Farmington before embarking on her teaching and coaching career.
Now, after several years of viewing the situation from the coach’s seat at her alma mater, Magnusson sees what she believes is a sports-related tinge to some transfers.
“It’s different nowadays, because kids usually aren’t transferring for four years,” she said. “Now you get kids who transfer before their sophomore, junior and senior years a lot more, and a lot of times that may not be because of academics.
“I think it’s a lot more common now,” she said.
Another coach who has seen the changing trends in high school sports is Tony Hamlin, who last month retired from a 31-year coaching career after guiding his alma mater, Penquis Valley High School of Milo, to the Class C boys basketball state championship.
One of his team’s star players, 6-foot-3-inch guard Isaiah Bess, and his family contemplated his transferring to another school last summer before opting to remain at Penquis for his junior year of high school. Now the family is again considering the transfer option to help Isaiah Bess — a Division I college basketball prospect — prepare for his eventual transition to college life.
Hamlin, who during his playing days matriculated from Penquis to a Division I college basketball career at the University of Maine, said that in general he has mixed emotions about the student-athlete transfer issue.
“It’s such a complex problem, and I can see both sides of it,” said Hamlin, who remains a teacher and athletic administrator at Penquis. “To me it goes back to a parental decision … but there are other things a kid misses out on by not staying at the school he started at with the kids he grew up with.”