EDUCATION + SCHOOLS

Utah proposes ban on some international students in high school sports

Apr 17, 2024, 5:00 AM | Updated: Apr 18, 2024, 9:33 am

students celebrate utah sports championship, international students in question with utah rules...

FILE: Layton Christian Academy players surround the championship trophy after Layton Christian Academy defeated Cottonwood in the 4A boys basketball state championship game at the UCCU Center in Orem on Wednesday, Feb. 28, 2024. Under a new rule being proposed, international students would not have been allowed to take part in that victory. (Isaac Hale/Deseret News)

(Isaac Hale/Deseret News)

Editor’s note: This article’s headline was revised to indicate that the proposal would affect only some international students. 

Tune in at 11:20 for more!

 

MIDVALE, Utah — When Layton Christian beat Cottonwood for the 4A boys state basketball championship in February, three of the four top scorers for the Eagles in that title game were international students, including the tournament MVP – but a new rule under proposal now could have prevented that outcome.

If approved, the proposed new rule before the Utah High School Activities Association would bar international students from playing varsity sports at any program in the state next year. 

What the proposal says 

The new rules, which are currently just a proposal from UHSAA’s Constitution and By-laws Committee, attempt to deal with what the association, some coaches and parents see as a growing problem – international students attending Utah schools on F-1 visas and playing high school sports.

The rule does not change participation guidelines for students attending schools on J-2 visas. Typically, those students come through International Student programs with very little say over which schools they attend.

Read more: The three main types of student visas in the US

However, those who come on F-1 visas can choose where they go. An investigation by KSL revealed a number of schools accepting, and possibly recruiting, international students to Utah schools based on athletic skill. Not only is athletic recruiting strictly forbidden by UHSAA rules, accepting students or allowing transfers based on athletic opportunities is also against current rules.

But enforcement of those rules has come under scrutiny as several private schools, including Layton Christian, boast rosters with multiple international student-athletes, most of those either starters or impact players.

Do Utah schools recruit international students?

UHSAA attorney Mark Van Wagoner said the proposed rule change came as a result of information the staff began receiving in the fall of 2023. Then, in January, a group of coaches sent a letter through an attorney offering UHSAA ‘evidence of recruiting’ by Layton Christian. That evidence included social media posts claiming at least one current player and a former player had ‘accepted scholarships to play basketball’ at the private school that has won boys’ basketball state titles in four classifications.

The coaches requested an investigation into the issue, and Van Wagoner confirmed that a months-long investigation is ongoing.

“In November (2023), the Utah High School Activities Association became aware of information plausibly suggesting that some members of the Association were recruiting foreign students for athletic teams,” Van Wagoner said in a statement. “Subsequently, the Association received further information from member schools, involved individuals, coaches, players, and the media that led the Association to open an investigation into what appears to be widespread recruiting at some member schools.”

UHSAA and KSL investigate

KSL has been investigating this issue for nearly two years. We published our first story involving issues at Juan Diego, a 5A private school, last month.  

KSL found several students who said they’d accepted athletic scholarships, but they also ran into issues with a haphazard system for housing and keeping track of recruited students. In the wake of that story, more people came forward to talk with KSL and UHSAA.

Van Wagoner said UHSAA’s leadership is concerned about a number of issues. They include the lack of oversight for international student-athletes in Utah, and how recruiting players from around the world may diminish opportunities for local students.

“The alleged recruiting of foreign players appears to have limited the opportunity for Utah players to participate,” he said, “those students having been replaced by international students recruited, specifically for sports. Additionally, recruiting always upsets competitive balance.”

What we’ve learned, what happens next

As part of the investigation, Van Wagoner said UHSAA staff began looking into how other state high school associations handle international students in sports and found Utah to be a bit of an outlier. According to his statement: 

The Board also learned that the vast majority of state associations limited international students to only sub-varsity play. This combination of factors, particularly the use of international groups to place foreign players with member schools created a threat to UHSAA fair competition and to Utah student athletes. It was an unprecedented situation.

That unprecedented situation led to the proposed rule changes.

Consequently, the Board took immediate action to change the Association’s Bylaws to conform to other state associations and limit international students to sub-varsity only. Further, the Board requested that the investigation into this systemic recruiting continue and that hearings be conducted as soon as reasonably possible.

Varsity sports at Layton Christian 

About a week before this rule change, Layton Christian administrators requested to move to a larger classification, but only in boys basketball. That would place the school in four different classifications in various sports. The request was denied; the Association’s Executive Committee told school officials they needed to make that request during realignment when all schools are subject to new regions and classifications.

Incidentally, Layton Christian’s championship this year was its seventh. They moved to 4A in boys basketball before the 2022-23 season, and the program became the first since 1973 (when Utah schools were divided into population-based classifications) to win state titles in four different classifications.

Another Utah private school with international students on the roster – Judge Memorial Catholic High School – won the 3A boys basketball championship. It was Judge’s first boys basketball title since 2008.

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Utah proposes ban on some international students in high school sports