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High school athletes at the sub-varsity level could switch teams at will, with varsity athletes able to transfer only in defined circumstances, under a policy that earned preliminary approval from the Utah Board of Education on Friday.

The proposal was first introduced in September and went through several revisions this week before earning measured support from the Utah High School Activities Association, or UHSAA, the primary governing body over high school sports in the state.

"I think this is as close as we've been the whole way through," said Rob Cuff, UHSAA's executive director.

But guests at Friday's school board meeting were unanimous in their opposition to the policy, which would force UHSAA to loosen transfer rules for student-athletes or lose roughly 90 percent of its member schools.

UHSAA rules currently prohibit transfers once a student has established eligibility at a school, unless that student obtains a waiver due to hardship, bullying, family relocation or other circumstances.

Under the new proposal, varsity student-athletes would not need a waiver to establish eligibility at a new school, so long as the transfer was prompted by the entire family relocating, or by a divorce or death in the family that necessitated a move.

A varsity athlete who transfers schools outside those acceptable scenarios would be required to switch sports, for example moving from varsity football at one school to varsity basketball at another. Subsequent transfers would result in a loss of eligibility for 12 months.

During the public comment portion of the meeting, several school athletics representatives urged board members to pause or abandon their efforts to intervene in extracurricular athletics.

Paul Schulte, Salt Lake City School District's executive director for auxiliary services, said the vast majority of UHSAA member schools — which includes school districts, charter schools and private schools — support the association's internal rule-making procedures.

"I would encourage you to back off, take some time and think these things through," he said. "It's time to listen to the people that you represent and not dictate what they should do."

And despite the vote in favor of the policy, board members and the state superintendent expressed concern that a debate over athletic ineligibility had dominated so much of the board's time in recent meetings.

Board member Joel Wright said he was almost to the point of banning playoff and championship events for public schools.

"I'm sick of it," he said. "It's distracting us from our mission and it's just making me mad."

The school board first challenged transfer rules in September, drafting a policy that would prohibit public schools from joining UHSAA — or any athletic association — if the association placed restrictions on athlete transfers.

Coaches, school administrators and the association's executive director spoke against the school board's policy, arguing that it would enable inappropriate recruiting efforts and erode competition by creating dynastic programs at winning schools.

The board revised its policy, cutting the transfer language in September, with an implicit warning to UHSAA to review and update its internal rules to allow for more consistency and flexibility when student-athletes enroll at a new school.

That warning bore fruit this week, when the school board released a new proposal to do away with UHSAA's waiver process and instead outline the acceptable instances in which a student would be allowed to transfer. Those instances included death in the family, divorce, or the desire of a student to enroll in a course or academic program that is not offered at his or her original school.

After a meeting with UHSAA representatives Wednesday, the board's policy was revised to remove the academic transfer provision, and to apply transfer restrictions only to varsity-level athletes.

Board member Spencer Stokes, the most vocal proponent of the policy, said it does not negate UHSAA's ability to set its own internal rules related to or in addition to the board's mandate.

"This does not throw out any of the rules they have," he said. "Many of their rules, if not all, will be able to stay in place as long as they're not in conflict with this."

But the revised language failed to mitigate the concerns of some in the athletic community, who question the board's approach to forcing change within UHSAA.

Richfield resident Richard Barton, president-elect of the National Interscholastic Athletic Administrators Association, said UHSAA is an imperfect but respected organization, governed by a representative board of local school administrators and athletics personnel.

He said it's unclear what motivations are behind the school board's actions, as schools and school districts cited by board members as being wronged by UHSAA procedures have since expressed solidarity with the association.

"This whole issue has rallied the state school communities in support of the UHSAA," he said.

And Kathy Howa, a physical education teacher and coach at Rowland Hall, said she sees Utah coaches attempting to bend recruiting and transfer rules every year.

Rules are necessary, she said, and UHSAA handles team and athlete concerns with fairness and professionalism, including in cases when the association's decisions went against her own interests.

"If it were not for the UHSAA, we would all be in utter chaos," she said. "Let the UHSAA continue to run without outside interference."

An additional vote in a future meeting is required for final approval of the athlete transfer rules. The policy also mandates the creation of an appellate body within UHSAA, which would be seated by the state school board based on nominations from the activities association.

Following the vote, state Superintendent Sydnee Dickson said that she supports and appreciates high school athletics. But she added that the same energy and passion should be applied to academic issues such as achievement gaps between white and minority students, and helping underserved populations succeed.

"It's very frustrating to me when I step into a group of people and this is all they talk about," she said.

Twitter: @bjaminwood