Class 6A may return to Colorado high school football, but it won’t solve inequity

Class 6A may be coming to Colorado high school football, but don’t count on it bringing much-needed parity to the big-school competition within the state.

CHSAA’s football committee voted to recommend the addition of an eighth class in its annual meeting Thursday. While the change wouldn’t go into effect until 2022 and is subject to the approval of the Legislative Council, it would re-organize the state’s 287 football programs from seven classes of roughly 42 teams, to eight classes of roughly 36 teams.

Assistant commissioner Adam Bright said the 6A proposal is rooted in CHSAA’s desire to “figure out some type of system that can help us place programs where they need to be, where they’re competing against like programs (in terms of talent).”

While Bright and the committee are right in their assessment that enrollment figures are an antiquated measure for determining classes, where the Class 6A proposal goes wrong is it does nothing to fix inequity at the big-school level.

“Coming from a 5A perspective, you’re going to have your top teams year-in and year-out who (have always) been there,” Regis Jesuit coach Danny Filleman said at the virtual meeting. “But based on the criteria, who’s going to qualify for 6A?

“… In 6A, it’s going to be super-tough to get 36 teams that are ‘like’ teams and are similar programs. Because there’s just not 36 teams (that can compete). In the middle of the pack, yeah there’s going to be a lot of like teams grouped together. The upper end? I don’t think you’re going to find it. There’s going to be a huge gap from the top 6A team to the bottom 6A team… that would be the biggest gap there is out of all levels.”

Consider the current state of 5A, where defending champion Cherry Creek and powerhouse Valor Christian headline a top-heavy classification in which only a handful of teams are realistically in the title hunt every year. A similar disparity is also seen in 4A — where a select few programs (i.e. Pine Creek, Pueblo South, Loveland) dominate annually — and in the lower classes as well.

“Our biggest problem across the state across classifications is that our top eight teams in each classification and our bottom eight teams in each classification are nowhere near each other,” Pueblo South coach Ryan Goddard pointed out. “That’s at 42 teams right now. The question we need to ask ourselves as a committee as we look at this thing globally: Do we have a classification problem, or do we have a how-we-classify problem?”

Even though Filleman and Goddard expressed some doubts about the 6A model, they both voted for it, and it passed by a 8-5-1 margin. And while Vista Ridge athletic director Bruce Grose was right in saying that 6A is a start to the process in terms of “creating classifications that are like programs, and not just (an enrollment) number,” the proposal falls far short.

As Filleman said, the new 6A (Colorado also previously had a Class 6A from 1990-93) would be nearly as inequitable as 5A currently is. Instead, the easiest and most effective way to bridge the inequity gap in prep football (And why not basketball too?) is the institution of a 6A as an “open” (read: elite) division. States like Arizona and California already have “open” classifications in place.

The top, say, 10 teams in the state — based off program achievement markers such as league titles, state titles, state tournament appearances, etc. over the last X amount of years — would be placed in the 6A “open” classification. That classification, and the classification of all teams, would be subject to change every few years based off what in Indiana is called a “Tournament Success Factor.”

So if you’re the ninth or tenth team in 6A and you’re getting pounded by Creek, Valor and Jeffco heavies Pomona and Columbine, you can drop down to 5A. If you’re dominating 5A, you’ll move up to the “open” division. Same thing for lower classifications: Say 4A Pine Creek rips off three titles in four years like the Eagles did recently. They get “promoted” to 5A.

An “open” division would not take away from the legitimacy or importance of the other non-elite classifications. It would give those teams and athletes more championship opportunities, because the sport wouldn’t be dominated by the same team, or couple of teams, at the same levels every year.

Idealistic? Perhaps. But in theory it’s doable under the CHSAA Bylaw 1500.2 — the same bylaw the committee continuously harped on Thursday, and rightfully so. While the bylaw allows for classification based on non-enrollment factors such as athletic participation rate, open enrollment figures and socioeconomics, it also allows for classification specifically based on “competitive non-success and success” and “competitive history and balance.”

So why stop at making 6A just another inequitable classification? Why not just pull the band-aid off entirely and separate the “haves” from the “have-nots,” since that’s already occurred anyway?

Here’s a toast to the football committee for at least taking a small step forward to leveling the playing field. And here’s a reminder that move still won’t be nearly enough.

Also in Thursday’s meeting: The football committee voted for a 10-week regular season in all classes, and a uniform 24-team playoff field for all classes. That puts the sport on trend to host the championship games at one location, as was done for the first time this year in Pueblo due to COVID-19… For 2021, the Class 5A and 4A championships will be back at Empower Field, while the rest of the classifications will be at CSU-Pueblo… The committee also voted to have all playoff games hosted at the higher seed in the semifinals, and neutral sites for championship games in all classes… All of these votes, like the 6A proposal, are subject to the Legislative Council’s approval this spring.

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