Proposed bill would prevent ‘sport specialization’ in Ohio schools

Stock image of a coach talking to soccer players. Getty photo by Alistair Berg.

Coaches restricting their student-athletes from playing other sports?

Rep. Joe Miller, D-Amherst, who moonlights as a basketball referee, says that should be out of bounds. 

He and Democratic colleague Adam Miller, D-Columbus, are targeting the idea of “specialization” with their new House Bill 459. It would make it illegal for Ohio coaches to prevent their players from participating in other activities. 

More broadly, the bill would not let any extracurricular adviser keep a student from joining any other extracurricular activity. A student could still get cut from the basketball team for performance reasons, but a winter-sport coach wouldn’t be able to keep an active player from joining the choir or playing baseball in the spring. Nor could a choir director theoretically keep a singer from playing golf.

Besides politicking and refereeing, Joe Miller said he has many years of coaching experience here in Ohio and in Texas. (Miller likes to joke that he’s chosen a variety of professions where people get upset with him.) He described having seen other coaches who demanded that players only focus on their sports. 

Such policies are not always written, Miller points out. It’s merely understood if you want to be a star on my football team, forget about playing tennis or the saxophone.

“When you put (this legislation) out there and bring awareness to it, it gives parents some ammunition to step up and let the coach and athletic director know that isn’t healthy,” Miller said.

Rep. Adam Miller agreed, saying that “policies should always put the best interest of the student first — not the coach.”

It’s about protecting students’ health as much as it is ensuring they have a well-rounded education, Joe Miller said. 

The National Federation of State High School Associations (NFHS) is among the organizations that have discouraged parents and coaches alike from pushing students to have “sport specialization.” Though the potential for fame, money and recruitment can be alluring, experts say specialization is actually counter-productive and makes an athlete more susceptible to injury due to overuse of a given set of muscles. Nearly all coaches, according to research reported by NFHS, believe that playing multiple sports will improve an athlete’s ability. There’s also the potential for emotional burnout. 

Rep. Adam Miller, D-Columbus

Former Ohio State football head coach Urban Meyer has for years championed the cause of encouraging athletes to play multiple sports, as have other high profile coaches like Dabo Swinney with Clemson. 

The Ohio High School Athletic Association (OHSAA) already has many regulations in place which define how coaches can interact with student-athletes.

Executive Director Jerry Snodgrass acknowledges sport specialization is a real issue that has led to a decline in the total number of participants across all sports. 

“I think it’s real that there is coach influence to not play multiple sports,” he told the Capital Journal. “I think it’s more widespread than people think.”

To combat that, Snodgrass pointed to a few OHSAA policies meant to kept coaches from imposing one-sport policies with players. For example, there is a “no contact period” in which coaches cannot interact with students for 28 days after the conclusion of a season. There are exceptions for post-season banquets, all-star contests and the like, but the point is clear: once a season ends, students are given free reign to move on to participating in something else. 

“We get a lot of pressure from coaches to do away with the no contact period,” Snodgrass said, but OHSAA has stuck to it.

There is also the “10-Day Rule,” which limits the number of coaching days during the summer months of June and July. This is to provide a sport-life balance for students to enjoy the summer or participate in non-scholastic athletic leagues like AAU basketball.

There is even a specific “no-contact period” in August for coaches of basketball, baseball, softball, hockey and lacrosse. This would prevent a basketball coach, say, from keeping a student off the football team by mandating his own basketball practices during those crucial weeks leading up to the football season. 

Rep. Joe Miller, D-Amherst

“Coaches fight that all the time,” Snodgrass said. “It’s not everybody. We have some great coaches that really encourage (playing multiple sports).”

As a general policy, though, OHSAA does not have a blanket outlawing of sport specialization as it concerns coaches in the way that HB 459 is calling for.

The trouble, Snodgrass said, is enforcement — OHSAA oversees 350,000 student-athletes representing nearly 1,600 high school and middle schools around the state. 

Joe Miller said his hope is for this bill to apply to all schools in Ohio. The current draft does not mention any penalties, but Miller said there is still work to be done and there likely will be one added. HB 459 has not yet been assigned to a committee to host hearings on the issue. 

In lieu of any passed legislation, Snodgrass said his organization will keep educating parents and coaches about the value of playing multiple sports. With only a small percentage of high school students going on to compete in college and beyond, he said OHSAA’s mission is to provide a good high school experience.

“We want multi-sport athletes,” he said. “There’s no question, we do everything we can do.”

Tyler Buchanan
Tyler Buchanan is an award-winning journalist who has covered Ohio politics and government for the past decade. A Bellevue native and graduate of Bowling Green State University, he most recently spent 6 1/2 years as a reporter and editor of The Athens Messenger and Vinton-Jackson Courier newspapers. He is a member of the BG News Alumni Society Board and was a 2019 fellow in the Kiplinger Program in Public Affairs Journalism.