In this world, there are lots and lots of thankless tasks, things that must be performed for the good of society in general or a group of people, in particular. Going in, the people performing these tasks know that there is a high possibility of being criticized and a very small chance of being praised. When someone finds him/herself in such a position, the first rule is to not make things worse.
For much of this century, the Arizona Interscholastic Association (AIA) failed to heed that advice. Tasked with providing a framework for competition and fairness for over 250 Arizona high schools, the AIA had a regrettable reputation for overreaching and under-performing. Some of the blunders and self-inflicted wounds would have been laughable were it not for the fact that they resulted in profoundly negative consequences for the student-athletes whose experiences they were supposed to be enhancing.
A couple of examples:
• One time, the softball teams from Pueblo and Sunnyside—two schools separated by less than four miles on Tucson’s south side—were scheduled to play each other in the state tournament, which was to be held in Kingman, almost 300 miles away from Tucson. Both schools asked the AIA if the game could be played in Tucson with the winner moving on to Kingman for the second round. The AIA said no. Both teams had to make the trip to Kingman, with the loser turning around and heading back to Tucson immediately after the game.
• Then there was the time in the state championship baseball game between Bisbee and Benson where a Benson guy hit a dramatic game-winning home run in the bottom of the seventh. As the Benson players celebrated their state championship, an AIA official who was in charge of refs and umpires came out of the stands and said that the ball had bounced over the fence and should only be a double, not a home run. The umps on the field changed their call and, of course, Bisbee went on to win in extra innings.
But those were just minor blips compared to the path of structural self-destruction that the AIA later embarked upon. There was a time, not that long ago, when the AIA was actually in danger of being dissolved. The organization had dug itself into a deep financial hole, spending huge amounts of money on vanity projects like renting the NFL Cardinals’ stadium for a high-school playoff game.
Their solution was to take an ax to things, causing long-term damage in the process. Arizona had grown so large that there were seven different classes of competition, based almost completely on enrollment numbers. To save money, the AIA cut the seven down to four. All of a sudden, small-town schools like Patagonia and Joseph City, instead of playing other schools with similar enrollments in the range of 100-150, were playing schools with 600 or 700 students.
The impact was immediate and devastating. There were football scores like 84-6 and basketball blowouts by 60 or 70 points were not uncommon. The decades-old, small-town tradition of gathering at the high school game, where kids could watch their older siblings play and dream of playing for the school when they got older was shattered. Entire programs shut down.
It didn’t help that the face of the AIA at the time was a guy named Chuck Schmidt, who was about as popular as a narc at a Grateful Dead concert. It took several painful years (and a very real threat of mass secession) for the AIA to come around. They’re back to six classes in some sports and under new management.
When the pandemic hit, it created challenges (and opportunities) for various associations and governmental agencies. Some adapted on the fly and handled things as well as could be expected under trying circumstances. Others did not.
With a couple notable hiccups, the AIA has handled the pandemic with professionalism and compassion. In the worst year in a century, the AIA has provided Arizona’s student-athletes with at least a semblance of normalcy. Of course, there were mask mandates and social distancing. Crowd sizes were severely limited or banned altogether. Schedules were changed on the fly and COVID protocols decimated rosters and shredded dreams.
(One example: Marana’s boys basketball teams lost a chunk of their season after a JV player from previous opponent Sunnyside tested positive. Marana ended up missing the state tournament. Because of the Power Point formula, Marana would have made it to state had they been able to play the games they missed, even if they had lost all three.)
As the 2020-21 school year comes to an end, the people at the AIA, who have been flexible and competent, have reason to be proud of the service and leadership they have provided. We salute them.