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updated: 1/17/2011 4:13 PM

The priority for high school athletics

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By Daily Herald Editorial Board

The Illinois High School Athletic Association didn't send a message to Maine South High School alone when it sanctioned the Park Ridge school on Friday for what it called a "litany of indiscretions" during last season's Class 8A playoff run. It sent a reminder to every school district in the state about what should be the priority of a secondary-school athletic program.

The most embarrassing indictment for the Maine South athletic community in the IHSA statement emanates from a single phrase -- "a pattern of behavior." Those four words suggest that -- in permitting counterfeit sideline passes during championship games, through Coach David Inserra's behavior at the award ceremony after Maine South's championship victory, and by other actions flouting IHSA rules -- the school lost sight of its most important mission.

For, as important as winning is to the morale and spirit of any school community, the chief goal of a high school sports program is not to win. It is to teach students how to win. How to feel pride without condescension. How to celebrate accomplishment with grace. How to honor the game by honoring its rules and rejecting any actions that demean fair play. A high school program that does not teach these things is not successful, even if its teams win every championship trophy for 100 years.

So, the IHSA sanctions are a reminder of that mission, and for Maine South they are not an end but a beginning -- a fact that Maine Township High School District 207 appears to acknowledge. In a statement responding to the IHSA sanctions, Dist. 207 said its administrators and school board "continue to assess the situation" and will develop plans to "establish institutional control of the football program" and to "improve sportsmanship by fans, coaches and players."

As the district's statement suggests, the role of the school system at this point isn't to simply accept its scolding and play nice next year. It is to institute fundamental activities that will resound with the students, fans and athletic program.

That Maine South's football team won three consecutive state championships is a remarkable feat. Such a consistent display of excellence demands discipline, focus and hard work, and the community and especially the school's athletes are right to be proud. But the "indiscretions" found by the IHSA and the school district's own internal investigations amount to the most serious infraction that can be leveled against a sports program designed for impressionable young athletes -- disregard for sportsmanship. That is more than just a stain on an otherwise exemplary program. It's an indication the program is failing at its most basic objective.

The IHSA sanctions against Maine South's "pattern of behavior" are a reminder of that message to every high school athletic program aspiring to the highest standards of achievement.