COLUMBIA — Only 15 years old, Hannah McGennis tightly clutched the MVP trophy awarded to her for exceptional play.
Hannah and her team, the Central Missouri Saints, were national champions after defeating the Thesa Riders of Fort Worth, Texas, on March 20 in the girls 16-and-under National Christian Homeschool Basketball Championships title game.
“Our team enjoyed it because we’re the little nobody team from nowhere that came in and got our championship,” Hannah said.
The Saints aren’t really from nowhere. The team has been based out of Fulton since the 2002-03 season. They practice at William Woods University. Their coach was formerly the associate strength coach for the MU basketball teams. However, don’t expect to see the Saints, or their players, at a Columbia high school gym anytime soon. The Saints are a home-schooled team, and home-schooled players cannot compete for, or against, state schools in Missouri.
The Missouri State High School Activities Association, the governing body for athletics in Missouri, says no rule explicitly prohibits home-schooled athletes from participating in high school sports.
While there may not be a specific bylaw, MSHSAA does have minimum eligibility requirements students must meet to play competitive sports. The academic standard requirement makes it impossible for an unconditional home-schooled athlete to become eligible. The standard says the student must be enrolled and attending classes that can earn them 80 percent of the maximum credit at the school they are going to represent. This rule has many parents and supporters of home-schooled athletics crying foul.
“I think it is an unfair policy, and I’m not sure why it was ever in place,” Hannah’s mom, Angie McGennis, said. “I’m not sure what their concerns are.”
Saints head coach Bob Jones said he thinks it is difficult for a home-schooled athlete to gain admittance to a state school.
“If you really are going to participate, it becomes a headache,” Jones said. “You gotta do things they don’t require of other public school athletes. They assume immediately that you are incompetent.
“MSHSAA is the problem. They are just bound and determined to have control over every student who competes in anything.”
Despite Jones’ leadership position with the Saints, he and his wife allowed their oldest son to transfer to Fulton High School to play basketball. The Joneses now call the decision one of the worst they have made.
“They started out discriminating right from the get-go,” Bob’s wife, Eva Jones, said.
“They wanted to see and have approval over our curriculum to see if it was up to speed, which they don’t do if someone moves in from another school district,” Bob Jones said. “They try and make us show curriculum and prove his level of competence.”
The home-schooled dissent of MSHSAA’s stance is not limited to educational guidelines. Economic matters are also hot-button issues.
“If I pay my taxes for a service that is supposed to be offered to the public, then I should be able to use it,” McGennis said.
McGennis is not alone in her frustration. Many families of home-schooled athletes say they feel their tax dollars should give their children the right to play high school sports. MSHSAA isn’t so sure.
“The taxes don’t fund the activities programs,” MSHSAA Associate Executive Director Stacy Schroeder said. “It is the education that is the opportunity for them to have at that school.”
Schroeder goes a step further in distinguishing the federal taxes argument.
“Lots of kids try out for sports at the high school level, and even though their parents pay taxes, they may not make the team,” Schroeder said.
One disadvantage the Central Missouri Saints consistently face is the lack of a home gym. The Saints are forced to exist like basketball vagabonds, hosting games in whatever gym is available. Bob Jones thinks his home-schooled team is consistently hit twice when being forced to pay to rent these gyms. Jones argues his tax dollars are already funding the public institutions, and charging rent each time his team schedules a game is unfair to the Saints.
“If I want to go to the library and get a room, I don’t have to pay rent for that room,” Jones said. “I can just reserve it.”
MSHSAA Communications Director Jason West said high schools necessarily need to receive some sort of compensation.
“They still have to pay for the electricity the outside group uses and the insurance that covers any liability,” West said. “Even though the school already has the gym and the gym is just sitting there empty, when people use it, the school still has some expenses that it needs to help cover.”
Another major drawback to home-schooled athletes playing high school sports comes down to state funding. If a student remains home-schooled and plays sports for a state school, that school will still not receive funding for the student. Practical solutions to satisfy home-schooled athletes who desire to play high school athletics and allow schools to balance an ever-tightening budget are difficult to come by. The Joneses propose a pay-for-play system.
“My personal belief is, with the financial trouble that every school district has, make it a club,” Bob Jones said. “Everybody pays to play. In this economic time, it makes perfect sense.”
“It would move that financial burden from the school,” Eva Jones said.
West acknowledges this pay-for-play system is becoming more prevalent today. The system is a growing necessity for many schools and will probably only become more widespread in the future. However, MSHSAA isn’t conceding the standard system yet.
“If there is any way not to do that, let them play,” Schroeder said.
Schroeder is clearly opposed to a pay-for-play policy.
“We’re not playing just to play,” Schroeder said. “We’re not playing to win games. We are trying to get the kids out there to learn some life skills and create some teachable moments for them to learn things they may not be able to learn in the classroom through sports. Causing kids to have to pay for that opportunity sets it further apart from that idea that we want these kids to be a part of this program, and get something out of it that is educationally based.”
Education and economics aside, some may wonder if it’s competitively fair for home-schooled athletes to play for schools in their district. With less required educational structure, home-schooled athletes could have more opportunities to practice. Home-schooled athletes could finish school work in the morning and spend the rest of the day perfecting their craft. Allowing these athletes to participate in school sports may give them a competitive advantage.
“That’s always possible,” Jones said. “Still, there is only so much time in the day.”
MSHSAA agrees it is not an issue.
“That hasn’t come up at all. That is not a concern I have heard raised,” Schroeder said. “If you are being educated, whether it is at school or at the kitchen table, everybody has to be doing the same thing.”
Jones said the competitive debate misses the mark.
“If you’ve got a kid who loves basketball, he or she will find the time to practice,” he said.
It is also true that not all home-schooled athletes want to play for state schools.
“It’d be a little bit of change, but I’m just so comfortable with the team because I’ve been playing for them for four years, so I don’t really think I would, no,” 15-year-old Caleb McGennis, a member of the Saints, said.
Caleb also said he thinks playing on a school team where one doesn’t go to school could be awkward.
“It’d be kind of different, you know, because everybody else, they see each other all day, and then they play together,” Caleb said. “I wouldn’t be there in that so it’d be kind of like, an absence.”
Hannah McGennis said she relishes her time with the Central Missouri Saints.
“The people you work with are fun to be around, and it makes it easier to work with them when they are happy doing what they’re doing and being there to please you, not themselves,” Hannah said.
Although Hannah says she is content playing for the Saints, she does admit a chance to play for a state school would be enticing.
“I think a lot more competition is in the other schools,” Hannah says. “I know from playing home-schooled sports, a lot of people don’t take it as seriously, or they don’t think it’s as competitive. Coming from us, we’re pretty competitive, so getting to play other schools who take it more seriously would be awesome. That’d be great.”
Angie McGennis also appreciates the time her children have spent on the Saints team.
“They have formed close friendships within the team,” Angie McGennis said. “They’ve improved. The children seem to like it.”
Schools themselves are also in favor of MSHSAA’s policy.
“I do agree with the rule,” Fulton High School Athletic Director and basketball coach Darrell Davis said.
Davis said he would be hesitant to support a decision that would allow superior home-schooled athletes who do not attend the school to play over another student who walks the halls of the school every day.
“That would be difficult,” Davis said. “You would have a lot of problems on your hands. Trust me.”
Missourians shouldn’t expect this polarizing issue to go away anytime soon. MSHSAA says the rule is brought up in discussion every three to five years.
“It will continue, I would imagine, to be at the forefront of discussions with our schools,” Schroeder said.
However, Bob Jones remains skeptical the rule will ever change.
“I don’t have much hope for it changing here,” Jones said. “We have a lot of prejudice and close-minded people.”
Whether or not the rule changes, the Central Missouri Saints, and other home-schooled teams across the nation, will continue to compete, sometimes on the brightest of stages. Occasionally, these athletes will fulfill their dreams and further their basketball careers. Hannah has hope for her basketball future after seeing a home-schooled athlete receive a college offer at the national tournament.
“I saw this boy, and he was crying on the phone to his mom, and he was emotionally overwhelmed from the offer,” Hannah said. “He was excited. It was really cool to see him get it.”
Almost as cool as being named MVP.