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(Nov. 22, 2013) – Fairness was reportedly the major driving factor behind the Virginia High School Leagues (VHSL) sweeping changes to postseason formats. Recently, the VHSL regrouped many schools into six classifications—each with their own state championship—based on student enrollment, and also tweaked some rules regarding how playoff berths are determined. While these changes will resolve some inherent unfairness that resulted under the old format, the overall impact fails to pit the best teams against each other and strangely rewards some traditional powers with potentially easier paths to state championships.
Let’s start with the positives.
Gone should be the days that teams with great records don’t even make the playoffs. Did you know that last year two teams from the Richmond area, Meadowbrook and Cosby, each finished the regular season with 9-1 records and did not even make the playoffs?
This was due largely to the former playoff format that relied heavily, in some regions, on regular season district championships and their accompanying automatic playoff bids. Under the new format, all playoff berths are based solely on the VHSL’s power point formula, where regular season wins and losses carry differing point values based primarily on the team’s strength of schedule. This change should even the playing field for everyone and removes the arbitrariness from the system that previously cost good teams their shot at playoff glory.
This makes the fairness gods happy.
But then there’s the Phoebus problem. As a starting point, it’s not illogical to use student body population as a way to group schools with an eye towards parity.
The conventional wisdom is that schools with more students have a higher likelihood of having more good athletes. But history tells us this isn’t always the case, and does not account for certain variable s in the system. Take Phoebus as an example. The Tidewater area high school has a student body of about 1,400, basically in the middle of the pack for Virginia schools. But for the better part of the last decade, Phoebus has been the most dominant football program in the state.
Under the old format, Phoebus captured seven state titles in eleven seasons as a AAA, Division 5 school. That division, in theory, included some of the bigger schools in the state, with only AAA Division 6 schools having larger student populations. And in many years, strong arguments could be made that the best football team in state actually was the Division 5 winner, not the Division 6 champ. Regardless, under the current system, Phoebus’ decade of dominance in the second highest classification in the state has resulted in the school being moved down a classification to compete against smaller schools.
Lake Taylor, last season’s Division 5 champion over Stone Bridge, was also bumped down a classification.
This obviously does not make sense. If fairness is the goal, shouldn’t VHSL implement a system where the best teams compete against each other, regardless of school size? There are too many variables that go into developing a football program to rely solely on student population to determine fair post-season pairings. Coaching, tradition, student transfers, and administration support are just a few of the factors that help explain why the state’s biggest school, Robinson High School of Fairfax, doesn’t simply win every state title by default.
Since VHSL already relies upon its power point formula to determine playoff pairings, why not use that as the only factor and get rid of the arbitrary classifications? This may be heresy for an American football column, but a model like that used in European soccer could work. The top 16 or 32 teams in overall power point totals would compete in the equivalent of a “Premiere League” playoff bracket regardless of school size.
Separate playoff brackets could be set pitting the next best 16 teams (or more) against each other, competing for the “Champions League” or equivalent state title. Such a system would avoid the arbitrariness of still relying upon school size as a key factor in who gets to play against whom, and actually create a more evenly matched playing field.
Was it fair last week for Lee (2-8) to take on traditional state power Stone Bridge (8-2) as a “reward” for making the playoffs (still not sure how that happened, note aforementioned “2-8”)? The 55-7 route by the Bulldogs indicates pretty clearly no. It’s time to move away from the old fashioned model of school size as the predominant factor used to decide fairness in high school athletics, and instead implement a system that strives for an even playing field based on the teams competing on them.