The sidelines: private vs public schools in sports – paid to play?


There are large advantages and disadvantages on both sides when comparing public and private schools. There is much frustration over the inequality of one school in comparison to another especially when looking at athletics.  Over a span of years, many people are becoming more and more aware of the differences in athletes and their performance when comparing private schools to public schools. One drastic difference can be clearly seen between public and private football teams. In fact, “Since 2000 [to 2018], 30% of all state titles were won by private schools (621 of 1,981 possible). That is more than twice as many titles as public schools. “Private schools represent only 14% of MHSAA schools,” said a source in the article “Defining the Problem on Fair Playoffs.” So, this tends to leave a major question: Are private schools gaining an advantage over public schools when it comes to athletics?

Many of these private schools are showcasing a large majority of skilled, talented athletes; however, the majority of these athletes didn’t originally attend these schools. Private schools have learned how to jump through hoops which can allow them to recruit athletes and create a “super team” without dealing with the consequences from MHSAA. For instance, these schools are able to invite potential athletes to tour the campuses, which will allow coaches to get in contact with them. They then are able to give these individuals scholarships and financial aid for a better “education” while allowing them to play that sport immediately in most scenarios. Because of this, many public schools are starting to lose top athletes, and coaches are beginning to feel the pressure of filling that gap.

One public school coach that was seemingly attempting to keep up with private school recruiting and was recently discovered recruiting athletes of his own is Jermain Crowell, who used to be the head football coach of Belleville High School. He has been under investigation by the MHSAA for violating the state’s undue influence rule. According to the MHSAA, the undue influence rule safeguards against “offers of or acceptance of residential relocation; financial aid to parents, guardians or students; reduced tuition and/or fees, any special privileges not afforded to other students …; transportation allowances; preference in job assignments; room, board and clothing; promotional efforts; and admission policies for athletes which in excess of efforts for other students.” Even though what he did as a coach was wrong and against the rule, this still shows how much pressure public school coaches are being put under in order to withstand the disparity of some of these private school “super teams”. 

Private schools also have a distinct advantage over public schools when it comes to geography. In public schools, coaches are usually limited to the athletes that are generally within district lines and boundaries, while on the other hand, private schools are able to connect to and attract potential student-athletes from anywhere. However, another issue that public schools face when it comes to getting athletes and geography is school of choice. Some athletes that do transfer from one public school to another public school district are embedded into this system that MHSAA has incorporated. The rules states the following: “Unless a high school student meets one of the 15 stated exceptions – most exceptions involve a defined residential change – a student will not be eligible for the next season in a sport he or she participated in at his or her former high school (any level) during the most recent previous school year. A student who transfers during a season will not be eligible that season in a sport played that season, and ineligible in that sport the next season,”. This is basically stating that an athlete who decides to do school of choice and who is outside of the district is not allowed to play his or her sport that he or she has previously played until the next season. This rule makes it extremely difficult for any athlete leaving one public school for another public because of the threat of losing a season while private schools don’t have much of this issue due to them being able to pay for tuition to be allowed to attend the school which includes everything that the school is providing. Public schools don’t stand much of a chance when it comes to the appeal of everything private schools have the ability to offer.

Not only are private schools having an edge on how to get their athletes, but they even have a somewhat direct control over the divisions that they are in. Contrary to the belief that schools are divided into divisions based on the talent levels of their athletes, sports teams are divided based on student enrollment and other resources that a certain school is able to provide. With this in mind, many private schools have been able to benefit from this since private school enrollment is quite typically extremely lower since this education comes with the cost of tuition instead of students receiving a free education at a public school. This decreased number of students allows private schools to drop down into lower divisions. These schools then take their recruited rosters to play far less competitive teams which gives them a far greater opportunity to win, and that is exactly what they do. In the article, “Defining the Problem on Fair Playoffs,” it states, “Between 2000-2018, 42% of state titles in the bottom half of divisions (based on enrollment) were won by private schools.  That is three times more titles than they should have won statistically. Private schools won 44% of the state titles in the lowest division in each sport.” 

Even with all of the pushback from private schools and the fact that what they are doing is indeed legal, there is an underlying factor that is not difficult for many people to miss: the number of wins. These schools are able to gain a large number of wins apparently with less, but in actuality it is with more. They are also able to get away with recruiting athletes because they are just wanting to provide a better “education” for them. Although the schools may indeed provide a good education, the main reason why so many of these athletes are switching is because of what these private schools are able to provide for a “better” athletic experience. In all, private schools have many advantages over public schools that public schools aren’t even able to compete with, so is it truly fair for private and public schools to be combined in the same divisions when it comes to sports? It’s a debate that has gone on for years and one that will continue for many more.