sports and politics

How a Lack of Leadership Can Derail the Most Powerful High School League in the U.S.

The Washington Post published a long-overdue expose on the Washington Catholic Athletic Conference (WCAC) today, laying bare its many short- and long-term issues and wrapping it together under the story that the conference has been a year and a half without a commissioner, an uncomfortably long-time for a major conference.

Let me pause here at the beginning and give my background/disclaimer on this issue.  I attended a school in the WCAC and, even more so, was a student manager on a sports team that was pre-season named the conference’s best team both years I was on the team.  I know and have worked with a few of the people quoted in the article (although I will not claim them to be close friends) so, even though I am years and years removed from high school and my WCAC days, I have a little knowledge personally of how the conference was organized.  

For those unfamiliar with DC area Catholic high schools, the WCAC contains some of the most historic and well-regarded schools in the nation.  DeMatha Catholic has, for years, been a sports powerhouse; pro athletes including Brett Cecil, Cameron Wake, Adrian Dantley, Bill Hamid, and a host of others.  Gonzaga – located a few blocks from Capitol Hill- boast many many politicians and business alumni, but if you’ve watched Stanford football you’ve seen former Purple Eagle Kevin Hogan tossing the pigskin.  Going down the list of members, each school has plaques on their walls of great and legendary athletes and coaches, up to the modern day.

However, the conference is facing a number of pressing issues.  If I were to apply my strategic planning formula to the league, I would go beyond what the article suggests and identify the following as major issues:

  • The league is constrained by the number of potential members, which makes for an unequal conference.  The DC area is not building new parochial high schools, so for the conference to be a decent size it has to include schools such as St. Mary’s Ryken (a good 2 plus hours from the closest conference rival) whose population and athletics’ philosophy are drastically different.  Thus in every sport you have a set of “haves” and “have nots” and they vary by sport.
  • The schools in the conference are engaging in a facilities arms race spurred on by unprecedented alumni giving.  It started with Our Lady of Good Counsel essentially moving its entire campus north to a larger and more wealthy suburb, allowing it to build a Texas-standard high school football field and athletic facilities that are the envy of nearby Division I colleges.  Other schools engaged in capital campaigns, but the kicker was St. John alum Kevin Plank, who owns a small sporting goods company, gifting a $16m gift to the school to remake its athletics facilities.  To keep up schools need to keep pouring money into facilities.  
  • Related to #1, there is a discrepancy in student populations in conference schools, but for larger schools such as O’Connell to plead poverty is suspect.  In reality, the various tiers in the different sports vary but if you cannot break the top tier in football and basketball, you are at a disadvantage in attention and fundraising.  However, to lump smaller schools like Ireton (geographically constrained) and Archbishop Carroll (shrinking student population) with larger, richer schools like O’Connell and Georgetown Visitation tries to cover lack of success with the excuse of an unequal playing field.  There are some real inequalities but there are also perceived ones that are attempts to mask poor results.
  • High school sports are changing and the league does not have a plan to keep the conference’s Catholic and educational identity in sync with these changes.  For example, basketball powers like DeMatha and Gonzaga will sometimes play three games in a week in three different states, traveling to places like Massachusetts then back to the DC area because there is a one-day basketball showcase with multiple nationally ranked teams.  If these teams did not go to these tournaments, there top-notch players would not get the visibility they need to play at top colleges and the schools would not get the attention they seek.

All of this is to say that America’s premier Catholic high school conference needs a strong leader to guide the members through tough waters.  Schools leaving the conference would mean the conference disintegrates; there are no Catholic schools waiting to replace them.  A new commissioner needs to address both the actual financial and structural inequalities between conference members as well as the perceived or false ones.  In addition, he or she needs to create a strong plan to ensure that all the schools’ athletes can compete at the highest and fairest level without the schools compromising their truly held religious and educational beliefs.  The next hire needs to be a visionary who knows the right people and who knows how to work with diverse audiences, and who should have been hired by now.

As the Post article lays out, the stakes are high.  However, I hope the next person hired can identify the actual root causes of the conference’s issues and correct them before it is too late.

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