Changes to Far East high school sports tournaments: My take

DODDS Pacific officials have spoken. The masses have pushed back. And the debate will likely continue for awhile in the wake of last week’s announcement that Far East tournaments in the future will undergo a major transformation.

Length to be cut, pool play to be eliminated and the program to be brought more in line with DODDS Europe in the name of saving money and cutting time missed by students out of the classroom.

Folks have had many chances to speak out on the subject and they have, some not so charitably. Perhaps the least popular aspect among those reacting was the so-called “Europization” of DODDS Pacific athletics. And perhaps the most outspoken was Jay Gilbo, who used to coach in both the Pacific and Europe.

“Each side has its OWN set of circumstances and logistics,” he said in a comment to a Facebook post I created last Friday, adding that everything from travel to tournament formats differ in each theater for a reason. “Each side should be governed by its own set of circumstances and logistics. Trying to make it equal is absurd. … Each area should NOT be compared to each other for the sake of appearance in creating a policy of equality. It is that very appearance that makes people upset, especially the athletes, parents and coaches.”

“I wish we would bring our sports here in Europe more in line with the Pacific,” added Brian Swenty, who formerly coached girls volleyball at Osan American, winning a Division II championship before doing the same at Vilseck, Germany.

Now, it’s my turn to be equally candid. Let me take each point one by one, my views on the subjects and those expressed in comments made to my Facebook page and in e-mail messages:

-- Budget savings: They’re called adjustments, DODDS Pacific spokesman Charly Hoff and Far East Athletics Coordinator Don Hobbs said. Adjustments made in an effort to ensure that student-athletes continue to get something of the same athletics events that they’ve gotten every year since 1980-81, when almost the entire Far East tournament slate got slashed due to budget cuts.

Money needs to be saved, yes. That’s a fact of life, whether the automatic sequestration cuts come into play on Dec. 31 or not (I’d imagine more cuts will be made if that happens, but that’s another story for another day).

But how much money is actually being saved? The cost of airline tickets remains the same. Students and their families pay for room and board while they’re away at Far East. Some savings would be realized due to one- or two-days cuts in per diem for coaches and chaperones, substitute teachers, on-site maintenance, referees and bus drivers would be needed for fewer days.

I’m sure there are variables, such as the exchange rate and allowances that are sometimes granted to make up for shortfalls caused by exchange rates. But to me, the savings, while visible and demonstrative of DODDS Pacific making change, seem somewhat token, and others chimed in to agree:

“I don't get it because the travel costs are the same and the kids pay for lodging,” former Osan American assistant volleyball coach Christine Vega said.

On the other side of the coin, former Seoul American football hero Joseph L. McLean II said: “I just feel as if they are making every conscious effort to ensure that the student-athletes receive the same exposure and opportunities as would those in the U.S.”

Budgetary pressures are something DODDS Pacific faces each year. It is what it is.

-- Bringing DODDS Pacific more in line with DODDS Europe: This caused the most angst and comment, both on Facebook and in e-mail. And that has long been a sore point with me since 1998, when DODDS Pacific last attempted “Europization” of its Far East tournament program.

Why? Why must it be “Europe good, Pacific bad?” Is there anything preventing DODEA as a whole from going the opposite way, standardizing both theaters by using the Pacific template? As former Yokota boys basketball coach John Thek said in 1998 when DODDS Pacific volleyball tournaments were shortened from six days to three:  “If we were so wrong for so long, how come we didn’t notice any sooner?”

You have a unique atmosphere in Far East tournaments, something you don’t get in any state tournament championship back home or within DODDS Europe. A week-long sports festival, in which Team Military plays games against Team Well-Heeled, Team Missionary and Team Micronesia. People from all walks, all creeds, all colors, all backgrounds,, lower, middle and upper class, names that are nigh onto impossible to pronounce, stories of upbringing that bridge all corners of the world.

Footnote: The three-day experiment in 1998 ended with those very volleyball tournaments. They kept the same number of teams and the combined pool and elimination format. The result was an unmitigated disaster, in particular on Guam; match sets were forced to be cut to 11 points each and teams were in the gym literally from dawn until well after dusk. Play and sleep. Play and sleep. The organizers did the best they could, but it couldn’t possibly work. And coaches steamed about it for months afterward.

Fast forward back to 2012.

First of all, eliminating pool play does NOT bring DODDS Pacific in line with Europe. For pool play is the very bedrock of DODDS Europe tournaments, with the top two teams qualifying for the championship. DODDS Pacific plans to do away with pool play and going strictly with double-elimination tournaments.

Secondly, how do you equitably seed teams into a double-elimination tournament without those doing the seeding actually having seen every team play? Blind draw is out of the conversation; what if Kubasaki faces Kadena or Yokota plays Kinnick in the first round? Going by win-loss records is far from scientific; some leagues are stronger than others and vice versa, and some leagues are stronger in some sports than others. You absolutely can’t go on the previous year’s tournament results; too many players come and go in the interim. You could do it by negotiation, say, by video teleconference, but you’re always going to have a coach or six who will be unhappy about whatever the seeding ends up being.

In an imperfect world, pool play is THE most scientific way to seed teams into any tournament. It gives coaches and players a chance to scout other teams, those they might conceivably face in elimination play. And it gives more bench players an opportunity to compete; in a strictly elimination environment, coaches invariably shorten their benches and only six or seven of their top players see court time.

“Too bad,” Vega said. “It was a great setup and a great opportunity to really work on your game skills and gave many on the team chances to play.”

-- Shortening basketball tournaments by two days: Not a very popular move with anybody, particularly over the cutting of pool-play games.

But there’s another factor I don’t think DODDS Pacific considered: the invited-guest teams from independent, international and missionary schools which, unlike DODDS Pacific which has its freight paid for by the taxpayer, must raise funds to travel to Far East tournaments and must be judicious in the use of those raised funds.

Already, there’s been chatter among some of those schools, particularly the missionary academies, about forming their own separate conference to complete in Pacific tournaments apart from DODDS.

“We are looking at … forming a tournament/league of our own after this year,” said one athletics director who asked not to be identified. “We attend Far East because it’s a quality event. If that’s declining, it’s not worth the money to us. We pay a lot to go for what, three days? Maybe three games? Not worth it. I think other international schools will see it the same way.”

The last time that happened was in January 1994, at a principals meeting at Tokyo’s New Sanno Hotel, at which the enrollment cap for Division II Tournament eligibility was lowered from 300 to 250 in answer to a letter from a DODDS coach questioning the higher cap. I foresaw trouble in that decision, and before I was escorted rather roughly from the room, I said to those in attendance: “Be careful what you wish for, because you just might get it.”

They got it. That decision spurred Canadian Academy of Kobe, Seoul Foreign, International School Beijing, Shanghai American, Brent International School and Senri Osaka International – the first two of which were longtime Far East tournament participants and the next three frequent ones, to form the Asia-Pacific Activities Conference. A closed conference, in which the member schools just play each other over two weekends, an in-season home-stay mini-tournament and the APAC tournament at season’s end. Of those five schools, Seoul Foreign attended a Far East D-I basketball tournament late last decade (and took quite a bit of guff from APAC leadership, I’m told).

I’m just afraid that cutting the Far Easts in duration might spur other schools to seek lengthier competitions elsewhere and diminish the size of Far Easts even further. “This may end up a DODDS only tournament in the future if this is the way they’re going with it,” said the athletics director.

-- Cutting basketball, volleyball teams from 10 players to nine: Noble in concept, but again, doesn’t match what Europe does. According to Scott Davis, who used to coach basketball at Kadena before moving on to Kaiserslautern, Germany, DODDS Europe permits 12 players, a manager and two coaches for basketball.

-- Cutting Division II soccer tournaments from five days to three, while Division I only gets cut one day: This gives the shaft to Division II teams, big time. Last spring, there were MORE D-II boys teams than there were D-I. In fact, the D-I boys had seven teams, D-I girls had eight, D-II boys eight and D-II girls seven. Seems to me they could do each tournament in four days or three, if they’re trying to be equal about things. Or since the maximum number of teams permitted in D-I soccer is 16, how about holding a combined tournament for all teams, regardless of level? And before people start screaming enrollment size, keep in mind, Matthew C. Perry is currently the pre-eminent power in soccer in the Pacific. The boys and girls have regularly faced up to their D-I foes over the past few years. I know Christian Academy Japan’s boys and American School In Japan’s girls might have something to say about that, but I think it could work.

“Small schools getting dumped on as they always are,” Samurai boys coach Mark Lange said in a Facebook comment.

-- Cutting soccer team size from 15 to 14 players. That needs to be revisited. Basketball teams can live with the cutdown to nine players, but not soccer teams. You’re already playing 11 on the field; coaches were already griping, rightfully, that 15 weren’t enough. Now, you can only bring three bench players? You’re four players away from playing down a man the rest of the week.

-- Missed classroom time: I’ve been over this again and again, and I’ll go over it one more time. I get the fact that no missed portion of any classroom session can be satisfactorily made up. I know what school is for. There’s a reason the word student comes before the word athlete. I also know what co-curricular activities are for: To give student-athletes that which they don’t get in the classroom. Learning to win with grace and honor, learning to lose with resolution and determination; all are part of the education process, and those you don’t get by balling and chaining students to the classroom. Four days, five days, six days – what’s the difference? You’re out of school the whole week anyway, or almost; if you start a three- or four-day tournament on Wednesday, you’re traveling on Tuesday and Saturday or Sunday and you’re only in school on Monday.

“Missed class time is going to occur on both sides of the world,” Gilbo said.

The point, once again, is I believe educators are selling the student-athletes short. For the most part, they follow the code of conduct, they have proven time and again they can crack the hoops as well as the books and also have the most motivation to keep their grades up. They must, after all, stay eligible.

Oh, and for those citizens against virtually everything who constantly bring up the bad apples, the itty-bitty, teeny-weeny minority who do misbehave and are held up as examples as to why we need to cut Far East tournaments altogether and make after-school club programs … listen in the background … you’ll hear the majority of those who do hold up the academic, athletic and conduct end chanting: “We … are … the 99 percent! We … are … the 99 percent!”

-- Football format to remain the same: Great decision. But I get the rumblings from those who feel the “everybody-plays-everybody” format, all D-I and D-II teams play each other at least once with two title-game berths at stake per division, is probably not sustainable, especially in this budget-cutting environment. Especially if sequestration does come into play. For the moment, Hobbs says the football format will continue next season just as it did this past. And was it ever an exciting one. To those who constantly ping on the format, suggesting it’s a classic example of fraud, waste and abuse, how about attending a game or three?

-- Revisiting the adjustments in the future: They’d better. Every year. If there’s any way possible that Far East tournaments can be restored to 2011-12 levels, by all means, make it happen.

Overall, the changes were made with noble intent. I can absolutely not argue with the budgetary concerns; the bottom line tends to push back quite hard. But the debate about everything else will likely rage for a long time.

Join the conversation and share your voice.

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Ornauer on AFN


Stars and Stripes reporter Dave Ornauer talks about the Pacific sports scene on AFN Radio. (Click on right arrow to play file.)


Sept 28:Dave Ornauer is back with the latest on the Pacific sports scene.

May 22:Yokota has dominated in first year at D-II spring championsihps.

May 8: Dave Ornauer highlights a few athletes who are participating in the Kanto Plains track and field finals Saturday.