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Madison still on my mind

04/26/2017, 5:30pm CDT
By Dan Bauer

Co-ops are failing to split into multiple programs

Dan Bauer is a free-lance writer, retired teacher & hockey coach in Wausau, WI.  You can contact him at

A re-occurring nightmare.  Have you ever had one?

As I drifted off to sleep during Wausau West’s 7-0 quarterfinals shellacking of West Salem/Bangor, I couldn’t help but notice the comfort of the newly upholstered seats of the Alliant Energy Center.  It is the kind of upgrade that keeps the AEC poised as the state of the art facility we all know and love.  We could only wish that the news of a new five year deal to keep the hockey tournament there was a nightmare.

It was the year 2525, or more likely 2025, with Zager & Evans singing the 1969 classic in the background.  Straining to see through the fog of an arena, apparently still the AEC, now in need of a new ice plant and HVAC system, I struggled to see the state champions as they waited for the game to end amid another clock malfunction.  A WIAA official, who shall remain unnamed, restrained teams from going on the ice because celebrations were no longer allowed.  It was a déjà vu moment that caused me to wonder if I was truly sleeping.

But it was what I noticed next that troubled me the most.  Like a scene from the Hunger Games, but with Emilio Estevez, the championship participant’s jerseys simply had the word “district” and the familiar dual circle logo underneath.  Feeling the pain of a Katniss arrow through my heart I realized that the once hallowed pride of playing for your high school had been replaced by geographical all-star teams.  No hypothetical human life was lost in this new version of prep competition, but the death of high school sports as we knew it was real.

Home town proud high school athletics had disappeared, much like wooden bats and sticks.  Open enrollment and the unregulated growth of co-op programs had rendered standalone high school teams obsolete.  Trying to fit, Brookfield Central/ Brookfield East/Catholic Memorial/Hamilton/Kettle Moraine/Menomonee Falls/Milwaukee King/Mukwonago/Slinger/Waukesha North/ Waukesha South/Waukesha West or even the acronym on a jersey proved to be impossible.  Ultimately circles were drawn on a map at 5516 Vern Holmes Drive and districts created.  Century old team nicknames and mascots were replaced by generic images and numbers. 

Faintly I could hear Hans from the Mighty Ducks telling me if I played today I would be a district two weather disturbance, a Hayward Hurricane, not a Rice Lake Warrior.    

An usher heard my silent scream and woke me from my nocturnal apparition and asked me to leave.  As I watched the West Warrior melting pot leave the ice, I knew my daydream was more likely a premonition than a hallucination.  Indirectly the formation of all-star teams has already begun across the state.

You can scoff that a such a notion as pure fantasy, but there is more evidence to support than deny such a future for high school athletics.  It is becoming painfully clear that open enrollment is a turnstile to the formation of such teams.  And now we have been informed that regulation of cooperative programs is not on the immediate WIAA radar.  Tom Shafranski told the Wisconsin Hockey Coaches Association at their annual meeting, “co-ops are a vital tool that administrators want to keep.”  A recent survey of school administrators found an 89% approval rating for the co-op process.    

Districts have recognized that growing co-op programs provides them with the versatility to offer any sport, with just a teaspoon of the cost.  And every athlete they can draw in or retain because of their expanded sports menu translates to roughly another $6,000 in their school coffers.  Regrettably we have now found a destructive partner to our growing—winning is everything high school culture.  You can now add financial gain to the list.  We are systematically and covertly passing on the cost of participating in high school sports to the athletes.

The artificial argument that school districts cannot afford to add sports to their budgets is amusing considering that entire athletic budget of most districts is less than one percent of their overall spending.  We extoll the virtues of athletics, and rightly so, yet balk at the modest investment required.  Ask any honest educator to compare the value of another in-service, or fad program that will be discontinued before it is completed, against the value of the athletic experience.

The recent elimination of three athletic programs at the University of North Dakota is another example of misplaced budget cuts.   

We have seen schools farm-out driver’s education and now, as difficult as it may be to believe, sports may be heading, figuratively, down that same road.  We are opening the door wider for club sports to enter into the equation.  You pay to play and you play where ever you want.

Later during the same coaches meeting, not part of my bad dream, Janesville’s John Mauermann, said what needed to be said, when he put the responsibility of building school programs on the high school head coaches.  His message was that it takes time and effort and an active involvement in the youth hockey community.  The reality is there are no shortcuts to building a solid and strong athletic program.  But open enrollment and adding co-op schools have become popular quick fixes with long term dynamics.

Co-op programs are not inherently evil and I am not against the opportunity that they provide for students.  There have indeed been a handful of successful co-op endeavors.  Unfortunately, coaches and administrations have been poor stewards of the co-op and open enrollment process.  Allowing open enrollment for athletic purposes was quite simply a mistake.  And if co-ops were used for their original intent of building multiple programs they could be a great asset to growing high school athletics.  It should be a short term bridge to long term growth.  Instead of an asset, the co-op process has become an out of control and abused method to create an unfair advantage.    

Winning at all costs and financial greed have proven to be a deadly combination that fosters corruption.  If there is anyone that thinks this won’t materialize at the high school level, I can assure you we are on our way.

Check out this JS Online story

The loyalty and pride of playing for your home town team is still alive, but the assault on those values continues to be cultivated through our acceptance of open enrollment for athletic endeavors and failing to hold co-op programs accountable for a long-term plan to grow into multiple programs.  Together they are tarnishing the intent and most critically the value of the high school athletic experience.

We are so blinded by what we believe are the short-term benefits and so convinced that none of these changes in the high school climate will have detrimental and long lasting consequences.  They will.

And that is a nightmare we could all experience soon enough.

Tag(s): Locker Room Logic