Benton legislation targets ‘overly harsh’ WIAA rules

King’s Way volleyball team knocked from playoffs after one too many games played

By Stevie Mathieu, Columbian assistant metro editor

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Video of testimony.

The King’s Way Christian volleyball team played an undefeated season last year, and girls on the team said they were ecstatic to find out they would compete in the Class 1B state tournament.

But excitement turned to tears when the team learned they were ineligible to compete in the championships because the school made a mistake and scheduled them to play one too many matches during the season. The girls were punished for a mistake they didn’t make, and the Washington Interscholastic Activities Association rules that kept them from playing in the tournament should be reformed, state Sen. Don Benton, R-Vancouver, said last week.

“This has been overly harsh, cruel and unusual,” Benton said. “And what for? High school sports. We’re not talking about college teams that have millions of dollars in television rights. We’re talking about a student’s high school experience.”

Benton has a bill before state lawmakers that aims to prevent high school students from being punished for rule violations that coaches, athletic officials or other adults make. Senate Bill 6383 has received bipartisan support and cleared a significant hurdle on Monday, when the Senate Committee on Government Operations, Tribal Affairs and Elections advanced the legislation out of committee.

State Sen. Craig Pridemore, D-Vancouver, chairs the committee. He voted in support of the bill during the committee’s executive session on Monday but added he wasn’t sure whether government involvement was appropriate in this case.

“I have concerns about us getting involved, quite frankly,” Pridemore said.

Benton said what happened at King’s Way was not an isolated incident. He provided packets for committee members during last week’s public hearing that included news clippings from across the state documenting WIAA punishments.

In 2007, the football team from Archbishop Murphy High School in Everett had to forfeit several games and miss the Class 2A playoffs because one player’s required physical checkup expired. The school’s coach, who was also its athletic director, was battling cancer and died just days after the paperwork expired. The school official taking over the coach’s paperwork noticed the oversight and reported it to WIAA once it was discovered.

The bill would ban the WIAA from imposing a punishment on students unless the students knowingly violated a WIAA rule, and would require that the punishment fit the crime. If a rule violation is reported to the WIAA within 10 days of any championship games, schools would only need to go through an appeals process with the WIAA’s highest board rather than having to also appeal at the league and district levels.

The bill also would allow schools to appeal a WIAA decision in the courts. It would be named the Knight Act after the King’s Way mascot.

“The WIAA’s purpose should be to promote positive athletic experiences in our schools,” Benton said, adding that the organization does serve an important purpose.

The WIAA supports the 10-day rule in Benton’s proposal, the organization’s executive director, Mike Colbrese, said during last week’s public hearing. But there is a gray area when it comes to handing down its punishments, Colbrese said.

“There are a lot of unintended victims of rules violations,” Colbrese said, but, “how do we define what unintended consequences are? How how do we actually penalize those who are really responsible?”

Regarding his disagreements with the bill, Colbrese said: “I think we’re very comfortable in having some very strong dialogue about this.”

The WIAA is a nonprofit organization that began in 1905 to create equal playing rules between the state’s high school sports teams. About 800 state high school and middle schools adhere to WIAA standards, and the organization oversees 83 WIAA state championships.

The WIAA receives no money from the state and is financed mostly through ticket sales.

WIAA rules governing volleyball say teams can play up to 16 matches per season, plus a jamboree. The school’s athletic director, Luke Gillock, appealed to the WIAA district and executive boards last year, but they ruled to uphold the punishment.

“It can be very, very complex and difficult to mete out a penalty that’s fair to everyone,” Colbrese said last week. “Sometimes it’s impossible. Sometimes there are advantages gained if students violate the rules.”

On Monday, Gillock said he could not comment on the bill because he hadn’t had a chance to read it yet. He did say that although what happened at King’s Way was unfortunate, “We support the WIAA. … We’ll abide by all the rules set by them.”