Multi-Class Basketball: Trophy Welfare

July 9, 2012

by Craig Ladwig

Up until 15 years ago Indiana had something special. It was the single-class state basketball championship. But Hoosiers, despite the iconic movie, never understood what was so special. So they lost it.

Last week, the Indiana High School Althletic Association (IHSAA), announced that the public and the experts had spoken for good: multi-class basketball will be the rule.

“While there still exists a segment of Hoosier citizens that would support a return to a single-class basketball format for the Indiana High School Athletic Association and its membership, that same membership has once again demonstrated strong support for the current multiple class format,” read the official statement.

It was the kind of “that-will-be-that” announcement your athletic director might make about improper use of towels in the locker room. The choice was framed as being between: a) an adolescent but admittedly fun way of doing things; and b) the necessary and practical grown-up way.

That was false. The choice was between the right way of doing things and a politically convenient way of doing them.

We can only understand the truth of that, and we can only understand what single-class basketball means to the Hoosier spirit, if we go to the trouble to understand what multi-class basketball is not. And we begin with the fact that it is not good for basketball.

The sociologist Helmut Schoeck writes about conflicting systems of social behavior. He makes clear that caste systems — and that is what IHSAA officialdom has installed — have historically served to defuse resentments that invariably build up between people of differing ability.

He shows that such systems serve those at the top of the heap — envy is quelled, expectations are lowered, routine is preserved. A carefully built program will not be toppled by Podunk Milan or come to be dominated by Franklin’s “Wonder Five.” Nor would Oscar Robertson of Crispus Attucks have been allowed to upset the social order of influential patrons and fans.

Those at the top of this particular system are the men who justify their salaries in the name of “wholesome amateur athletics.” They do it for the “kids,” they will tell you at budget time.

Yet some doubt that our student athletes, our “kids,” will ever again play in a place where the game’s inventor, James Naismith, could write, “Indiana is the center of basketball,” after sitting in the stands with15,000 fans at a Hoosier single-class final.

Through the 2009-2010 season, 146 of our homegrown athletes had played professional basketball. That makes Indiana per capita by far the most successful basketball program in history. That will not last; the bureaucrats of the jock strap, not men like Coach Norman Dale, now blow the whistle.

My friend Steve Warden was among the few sports writer who dared offend the IHSAA by searching out courtside dissent.

• “I don’t think Indiana will ever be back, unfortunately, as much as I would like to see it,” a veteran coach told him.

• “The powers that be, I’m sure, had their reasons,” another lamented.

The real story is that Indiana has thrown away something as unique as America itself — exceptionalism. For equality of opportunity has been replaced with equality of results, albeit wrapped in neat little packages of “equal” schools. Such equality (here in the form of trophy-case welfare) always dampens achievement.

So the next time you hear the bounce of a basketball on driveway cement consider this: If those powers that be don’t understand something as important as basketball, what else are they messing up?

Craig Ladwig is editor of The Indiana Policy Review.


Helmut Schoeck. Envy: A Theory of Social Behaviour. Liberty Press, Indianapolis, 1987.

Steve Warden. “Surveys Are in: Class Basketball Will Stay Same.” The Fort Wayne Journal Gazette, July 7, 2012.


  • Roger Metzger says:

    Craig —
    Great piece about class basketball in Indiana!
    For us graybeards, one of the frustrations of all this is that our class
    basketball didn’t spring from Hoosier stock.
    I clearly remember reading a newspaper interview of Steve Alford and his reaction to class basketball being proposed for Indiana.
    He noted he’d been around Indiana high school basketball all of his life, his Dad had as well, and: “We’ve never even heard of the people who are proposing this.”
    But true Hoosiers really didn’t have much say then, nor have they in the two “surveys” the IHSAA has conducted since it was implemented.
    Guess I just have to take heart in recalling the reaction of Coach Wayne Kreiger’s Columbia City Lady Eagles back when the IHSAA made the shift — they wore
    T-shirts that proclaimed “We’ve always had class basketball!”
    Roger Metzger
    Columbia City

  • Stephen J. Stalcup says:

    Craig, Thank you for your honest, insightful article on the cultural loss to Indiana with the final burial of suingle class basketball by the IHSAA. I grew up in Vincennes in the 1950s when prep Basketball was at its peak and 6000 screaming people filled the Colliseum to see 13 schools battle for the Knox County Sectional. Vincennes Lincoln usually won, but the possibility for an upset champ kept the intrest high over the years. Scool Consolidation in the 1960s was the beginning of the decline of high school hoops that later spawned the homoginazaion of the game via class basket ball. Society has changed and now “everybody is a winner” is the mantra for collective mediocraty and trophies for all is the norm in youth activities. The result is a lot of folks unprepared for the real world where life is often not fair and there are always more losers than winners.

    • cladwig says:

      Thank you, Stephen, for your historical perspective. I graduated about five years before consolidation swept the state and nation. I might as well be from Mars. Sometimes, though, I think all of our issues today can be reduced to class basketball.

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