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Tenn. To Split Public, Private Sports Leagues

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Tennessee's public and private school sports teams have long played together, but not without hard feelings. So last week, state athletic directors moved to separate them.

The legislative council of the Tennessee Secondary School Athletic Association voted 6-1 to split sports divisions between schools that offer financial aid and those that do not, beginning in fall 1997. That could divide public and private school sports into separate leagues and championships.

Proponents say the change will help level the competition because the association's 52 independent schools can give needs-based financial aid to students, including a limited number of athletes.

"Financial aid offers an attractive incentive for recruiting athletes," said Gene Beck, the association's assistant executive director.

But private school officials say the new rule amounts to sour grapes over the fact that their teams do well in sports competition.

"It's a sad thing in our country that winning and losing has become such a big issue," said Bill Brown, the headmaster at the private Brentwood Academy in Nashville, a perennial sports powerhouse. "Our success has made us very unpopular among public school people."

Seeking Playmates

In most states, public and private schools participate in joint leagues and championships, though a few states separate the groups.

The issue is being debated in Wisconsin, where private schools are trying to join public school sports championships.

With many of the state's private schools consolidating, it is getting hard to find competitors and to meet travel budgets, said Al Bill, the executive director of the Wisconsin Independent Schools Athletic Association. A state task force there will study a way for the leagues to merge by 2000.

In Tennessee, Brentwood Academy's capture of the state 5-A football championship may have been the last straw: The 283-student private high school took the championship in a game with the 1,800-student public Riverdale High School.

Two other private schools joined Brentwood in winning three of Tennessee's five football state championships last fall.

By March, the call for a change grew so loud that the council voted 5-3 to separate private and public school state tournaments outright. That vote was ruled invalid because it failed to meet advance-notice requirements.

In the meantime, opponents of the split rallied their forces to persuade the council, which sets the bylaws of the sports association, to relax its stand on private schools.

Considered a Compromise

But all hopes were dashed by the vote last week.

"I do believe that some persons felt that this was a source of friction, and they had to do something to make it come to a screeching halt," said council member Jean Literer, the principal of the public Hillsboro High School in Nashville.

Ms. Literer, a staunch opponent of separate leagues, said other council members saw last week's decision as a compromise because it would allow private schools to compete in public school divisions as long as their athletes do not get financial aid.

Stephen Williams, the athletic director at the private Father Ryan High School in Nashville said that such an interpretation is way off.

"Financial aid is what we have to do to help poor Catholic kids," he said. "It's going to be very difficult for us to decide that a kid who's accepting financial aid can't play athletics."

Besides, he and other private school officials argued, the financial aid goes a long way to help diversify their institutions.

While tuition at Father Ryan ranges from $3,730 to $6,230, Mr. Williams said, needs-based scholarships usually fall between $500 and $600, though some are as high as $1,500.

Still, many say schools such as Father Ryan tend to have other advantages--selective admissions policies, good facilities, and active parents.

"We play with what we have. We don't have the privilege of going to surrounding towns and getting our players," said David Daniel, a member of the athletic-association council and the principal of the 500-student public Loretto High School about 80 miles south of Nashville. His school is a good example of why the policy must change, he said.

After six losing football seasons in the mid-1980s, Loretto hired new coaches and revamped its practice and playing facilities in an effort to boost the school's success.

Since then, Loretto has won 72 percent of its games, tripled the number of football players, and qualified for the state playoffs four times. Still, private schools have eliminated Loretto each time.

"I'm not saying they're doing anything illegal, but we'll never be able to beat them," Mr. Daniel said. "We can't put the quality of scholar athlete on the field."

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