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MIAA changes bona fide team rule for postseason play, but questions remain in tennis

Lane Turner/Globe Staff

As the Massachusetts high school sports postseason begins Friday — the first MIAA-sponsored tournaments since March 2020 — several of the state’s top tennis players thought they faced a difficult choice: play for their high school team, or play in a tournament they registered for before they knew a spring tournament was possible?

The United States Tennis Association is holding its New England Regionals this weekend in Springfield, and it is both a qualifying event for national competition and a college recruiting event. However, with the first round of the MIAA tennis tournament also taking place this weekend, many coaches believed that their players would be bound by the MIAA’s “bona fide” rule, which limits their participation in outside athletic events. Tennis players would have to make a choice or risk being suspended for the remainder of the post-season.

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Guidelines passed by the MIAA for 2021-22 change the application of the bona fide rule for the post-season, lessening penalties. The penalty for missing one post-season match will now apply to the next regular season of any sport the student plays in. Missing two or more games and practices would result in a suspension from the MIAA tournament.

However, some teams were told over the past few days that the rule change now applies to this spring post-season — but the message was not received by everyone.

On Wednesday, schools involved in the North tennis sectional received an email stating that the rule was changed for the post-season, and if a player missed one practice or match for the USTA event, they would not be penalized. If they missed two or more, however, they could be suspended.

This information ran counter to information provided from the MIAA to schools over the past few weeks. On June 2, Wellesley athletic director John Brown brought up the tennis tournament conflict and asked for a waiver of the bona fide rule this spring in both an email and call with Assistant Executive Director Phil Napolitano. According to Brown, Napolitano told him the rule would not be waived. Brookline AD Pete Ritteburg received a similar message.

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During the MIAA Tournament Management Committee meeting the next day, Brown again brought up the conflict and asked for the rule to not apply to tennis this spring, but committee chair Jim O’Leary said the MIAA Board of Directors had already addressed the issue and it would remain in place.

The news of the Wednesday email to North tennis teams spread quickly, as several athletic directors who received it were together at a retirement dinner. Several, including Brown, began to contact the MIAA asking for clarification and for the exact application of the rule for this tournament be shared widely.

As of Thursday afternoon, just a day before the MIAA tournament begins, confusion still remains. Several coaches told the Globe they were still unsure of the exact application of the rule afterthey learned that day their players would not be punished for missing one match. The MIAA’s Napolitano has not responded to the Globe’s questions.

Schools are pleased about the rule change, but wish that the change for this postseason had been communicated widely, since just two weeks ago, the MIAA made it very clear it wasn’t considering any change.

“We don’t understand why the news about the change wouldn’t go out to the entire association,” said Ritteburg.

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The bona fide rule was created to keep student-athletes from prioritizing club athletics over their high school team. Players may not miss a high school team practice for a club team practice, or a high school game, match, or meet for a club competition. Waivers of the rule may be sought in the regular season, and depending on what is missed, the waiver is either heard by the school itself or the MIAA. But come tournament time, the language is clear: “The MIAA will NOT accept any Bona Fide Team Member Waivers for missing any practice or game during MIAA postseason play.”

Teams are not allowed to adjust their practice schedule to avoid potential conflicts, something that may be difficult to monitor. Even if players attempted to play and practice in both events, the physical distance between events may preclude it.

In most years, it is not an issue because the MIAA events conclude before the USTA tournament. But the spring high school season started late because of the pandemic, and the MIAA did not agree to hold state tournaments until mid-March, after players began to register for the USTA event.

This is not the first time that the bona fide rule has led to controversy. The rule’s adoption for the 1986-1987 school year, after an initial rejection in 1985, was a hot button issue. Challenged by the swimming community from the outset, it went as far as being addressed by the State House, with a state senator from Bedford even proposing that Olympic sports — swimming, gymnastics, and tennis, among others — be taken out of MIAA control due to regulations like the bona fide rule.

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That didn’t happen, and the rule has been enforced in some memorable ways over the last 35 years. In 2004, Cory Quirk, then a Catholic Memorial star, was held out of the baseball season after missing tryouts and practices to play in the USA Hockey national championships. In 2012, Gardner had a swimming sectional title stripped after it was alleged that swimmers skipped high school practices for club events.

Individual sports cause the most conflict with the bona fide rule because college recruiting in those sports are more frequently done within the club circuit, and tennis is no exception.

Before the rule change was even discovered Wednesday, coaches were lamenting the lack of communication that caused the conflict in the first place. They recognize all sides are doing their best in an unusual year, but wished their ideas would have been considered earlier.

“The whole thing could have been avoided with a little communication,” said Duxbury boys tennis coach John Bunar.