Ray Carter | February 13, 2023

Legislation would reduce Oklahoma high-school athletic competition

Ray Carter

In the 2022-2023 school year, the boys basketball team at Bishop McGuinness High School compiled an 11-11 record, including losses to Deer Creek, Edmond Memorial, Choctaw, Del City, Newcastle, and Tuttle.

Similarly, Bishop McGuinness’ girls’ basketball team finished that year with an 8-13 record.

Yet lawmakers may soon consider legislation to bar Bishop McGuinness and other private schools from participating in high-school playoffs against public schools—because the public schools supposedly can’t compete.

The narrative that private schools consistently dominate public schools in athletic competition leaves many private-school officials shaking their heads.

“They look at one sport,” said David L. Morton, principal at Bishop McGuinness High School. “Well, you might be good in football this year, but you might be terrible in baseball and golf and 10 other sports.”

Legislation has been filed that supporters say could result in private schools being barred from playoffs that include public schools. Essentially, state high-school athletics could be divided into two separate systems, one for public schools and one for private schools.

In some instances, that would make for a very short playoff.

In a recent letter sent to supporters, officials at Bishop McGuinness High School in Oklahoma City and Bishop Kelley High School in Tulsa noted that any playoff that takes into consideration school size would mean those two schools would represent the entire field in a potential new private-school playoff for their division.

House Bill 1040, by state Rep. Randy Randleman, would restrict athletic competition in high-school sports, although the language in the bill remains broad.

Randleman, R-Eufaula, and state Sen. Dewayne Pemberton, R-Muskogee, have reportedly been the public face of the proposal at the Legislature. Neither legislator responded to emailed requests for comment for this article.

However, Randleman has discussed the bill elsewhere.

In a statement to the Woodward News, Randleman said that historically “there are many more private schools that make the quarterfinals, semifinals, and finals in basketball and football than public schools.”

Randleman told The Oklahoman, “So many times, in the athletic events and the playoffs, you will see teams that are really good, maybe undefeated. And then when you get around (to) the playoff and you run into the private schools, then (the undefeated public schools) are always losing.”

Under his bill, Randleman said private schools might be allowed to schedule games against public schools during the regular season, but would be shifted to a private-school only playoff.

However, a review of recent playoff records undermines the narrative of private schools’ continual athletic dominance of public schools. In fact, public schools routinely beat private schools in athletic competitions.

In the most recent Class C high-school football playoffs, which involve the state’s smallest schools, Mount View-Gotebo beat Wesleyan Christian 34-20. In the Class B football playoff, Waurika beat Southwest Covenant 42-24, Seiling beat Oklahoma Bible 46-0, and Velma-Alva beat Regent Prep 40-26. In Class A, Fairview beat Christian Heritage 46-14. In Class 2A, Washington beat Oklahoma Christian 18-11, while Jones beat Community Christian 27-20 and Millwood beat Crossing Christian 34-29 and also beat Victory Christian 54-22.

No private schools made the playoffs in Class 4A, and none competed in Class 6AI and 6AII. In the Class 5A playoffs, McAlester beat Bishop McGuiness 39-29 and Del City beat Bishop Kelley 41-14.

Only in Class 3A did private schools make it to the state championship game in 2022.

And even where private schools have emerged at the top of the heap in athletic competitions, they have done so with the deck stacked against them.

Oklahoma Secondary School Activities Association (OSSAA) rules already penalize private schools by allowing them to be artificially bumped into a higher classification and required to compete against public schools with larger student bodies.

In many instances, the most crushing, lopsided playoff defeats were not experienced by public schools facing private schools in football, but by public schools facing other public schools. Vian beat Spiro 52-7. Washington beat Atoka 54-7. In perhaps the most notable example, during the 2021 playoffs Bixby beat Putnam City North 78-7.

A similar picture emerges in other sports. For example, in the last decade in baseball, state championships were awarded to public schools in every single classification in 2022, 2019, 2014, and 2013. (No championships were awarded in 2020 because COVID canceled the season.) Of the 70 state baseball championships awarded in all class-size divisions during the past decade, 63 went to public schools.

Even so, critics argue that private schools retain a competitive advantage over public schools, claiming that private schools are effectively able to recruit top athletes—even though attendance at many private schools involves higher academic expectations than what those same athletes would face in public schools.

But that argument is undermined by the fact that many private schools have losing records in various sports. And the recruiting argument implicitly suggests private school officials are world-class evaluators of high-school talent while those students are still in elementary or middle school.

Morton noted the large majority of seniors playing Bishop McGuinness football this year had been at the school since middle school or earlier.

The “recruiting” argument is also undermined by data on the number of athletes ranked as potential college players by recruiting analysts. According to the rankings of Oklahoma’s top football athletes compiled by 247Sports, of the 155 top-rated high-school football players in Oklahoma over the last four years, 141 attended public schools.

No private school had more than three total rated athletes in the 247Sports ranking during those four years, and only three private schools had three ranked players apiece. In contrast, there were 14 public school districts that had three or more ranked players.

During that four-year period, Community Christian School, Lincoln Christian School, and Casady School each had a single player in the 247Sports rankings, fewer than the number of such players at public schools such as Pawhuska and Checotah, and the same number as public schools like Berryhill, Tahlequah, Weatherford, Thomas-Fay-Custer, Vian, and Eufaula.

While some private schools have enjoyed sustained success in specific sports during certain periods, the same is true for many public schools who have won multiple state championships taking on all comers.

“When you look at it historically, we’re not any different,” Morton said. “McGuinness has had its run of success just as Carl Albert has in football, or Laverne has had in football, or certain schools have had in basketball and that type of deal.”

Since 1996, Jenks has been football state champion 15 times in its class, including a run of six consecutive championships.

In wrestling, Tuttle just won its 14th straight dual state tournament championship. The school district now has 20 dual state crowns, which ties Perry for the most in state history.

In 2021, Bixby broke a state record in football by winning its 49th consecutive game. Bixby added nine more consecutive wins to that total in 2022 (reaching 58 consecutive victories) before losing by three points in its lone loss of the year on Nov. 3, 2022. The consecutive-win record in 11-man football was previously held by Wagoner, which didn’t lose a football game from 2014-17.

In girls track and field, only two schools have won team championships in Class 6A in the last decade: Jenks and Edmond Memorial. In Class 5A, two private schools have each managed to win a single team state championship in the last decade, but those programs have been overshadowed by Del City, a public school that won four consecutive team championships. In Class 4A, Weatherford won four consecutive championships during the last decade and just missed a fifth. In Class 3A, Beggs and Chisholm have been state champions in six of the past 10 years.

Despite all the evidence to the contrary, Morton said there’s no convincing some critics that high-school athletic events have been won on the playing field.

“When we had that really good run of basketball teams from around 2000 to 2011 or so, we had three families that had a lot of boys, and they were talented athletes,” Morton said. “I was on the OSSAA board one time and one of the board members said, ‘I don’t care what you tell me, I know you guys recruited Daniel Orton from another state.’ I said, “Daniel Orton went to Catholic grade schools from kindergarten.’ Some people have a mindset and regardless of what you tell them, you’re not going to get them off of what they want to believe.”

Ray Carter Director, Center for Independent Journalism

Ray Carter

Director, Center for Independent Journalism

Ray Carter is the director of OCPA’s Center for Independent Journalism. He has two decades of experience in journalism and communications. He previously served as senior Capitol reporter for The Journal Record, media director for the Oklahoma House of Representatives, and chief editorial writer at The Oklahoman. As a reporter for The Journal Record, Carter received 12 Carl Rogan Awards in four years—including awards for investigative reporting, general news reporting, feature writing, spot news reporting, business reporting, and sports reporting. While at The Oklahoman, he was the recipient of several awards, including first place in the editorial writing category of the Associated Press/Oklahoma News Executives Carl Rogan Memorial News Excellence Competition for an editorial on the history of racism in the Oklahoma legislature.

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