VHSL competition

Written by Dr. Keith Perrigan, as published by Cardinal News May 24, 2024


The Virginia High School League (VHSL) was established in 1913 as an organization to structure competition for high school students and athletes. With early beginnings focused primarily on debate competitions, the League has changed often and sometimes drastically over the years. Based on recent trends, it may be time for additional and significant changes to be considered. As we approach the beginning of the spring championship season, which marks the end of another robust year of academic and athletic competition, I can’t think of a better time to have this conversation.

Hopefully, each VHSL season begins with athletes and scholars planning to compete for district, regional and state championships. Obviously, the possibility of achieving each becomes more difficult at each respective level. Regardless of the challenge, the goal should be for each team and individual to reach their highest potential as they compete against teams with similar enrollments and resources. Unfortunately, that is not the case for many athletes and scholars across the commonwealth.

Due to a multitude of reasons, some schools and teams have developed into dynasties where other teams have very little, if any, chance to remain competitive. Whether it be the draw of attending a private school, the connections that can be made in off-season competitive leagues, or the opportunities available by bringing regional students under one roof, some athletes and scholars have multiple options to attend a school that allows them to compete and excel at the highest level. It is my understanding that some VHSL participants even receive reduced college tuition because of the high school they attend. This sounds like an ideal situation for students but, unfortunately, it is only available to families who have the financial means or geographical proximity to access the opportunity.

Based on the annual turnover on rosters for some of these programs, the opportunities are very beneficial and much sought after. This is not an indictment of those schools or teams. I am completely supportive of providing students with the best opportunities possible. I applaud the communities that have been able to create these unique opportunities for students. Additionally, it appears that these schools are following the rules, regulations and guidelines set forth by the VHSL. Otherwise, sanctions, adjustments or penalties would have been administered. 

However, those unique options are not available to most high school students in the commonwealth. Whether the obstacle is location based or financially related, most students only have the option to attend the high school in the school zone of their residence. As a result of this lack of equal access, an inequitable field of play has been inadvertently created in Virginia.

Here are just a few examples of the inequity that currently exists in some VHSL activities.

One sports team outscored its collective opponents this season by approximately 800 points, beating another team in the regional tournament by 82. The team scored 839 more points than the average team playing that sport in the United States. Another sports team, with multiple Division I signees, arrived at a playoff game on a charter bus owned by the university for which two of the players had already made college commitments. These opportunities are amazing for the students who are the beneficiaries, but they are not available to an overwhelming percentage of VHSL participants.

There are solutions to help create a more equitable playoff environment in the commonwealth. None are perfect, but neither is our current system. As a conversation starter, I offer the following suggestions for leveling the playing field for students and athletes who participate in VHSL activities:  

  • Introduce a championship, elite or special, etc., classification for postseason play. This would involve developing a formula that identifies the top 16-32 teams in the state, regardless of classification, and allowing them to compete against each other for a state title.

  • Approach upperclassman transfers differently. Some examples that are currently being used in other states include allowing transfers to participate in only regular season events for one year. Other states require a mandatory 365-day ineligibility period with limited and specific exceptions.

  • Approach ninth grade eligibility differently. One example from another state is to allow ninth graders to enroll in a school other than the one in their attendance zone and allow them to be eligible for varsity participation after 365 days.

  • Address travel team influence on VHSL participation. Some states do not allow high school coaches to coach their high school players in other sanctioned activities. Other states limit the number of students from one school who can participate on the same travel team.

  • Add an additional factor to the classification metric. Use a competitive or success factor in addition to straight ADM to place schools in classifications.

  • Consider adding an administrative or investigative function to districts, regions or the VHSL. This would allow teams who are falsely accused of breaking VHSL rules to demonstrate their compliance in a formal way and for the supervisory organization to ensure competitive equity.

Personally, I am not advocating for any one of these changes specifically. However, one of VHSL’s beliefs is that fairness and equity should be ensured through safe competition. In that spirit, I respectfully encourage the VHSL executive committee, the VHSL staff and VHSL membership to consider alternative ways of ensuring all students have a legitimate and equitable opportunity to play for a state championship when their respective season begin