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.


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