Wojo: Thomas Kithier case is one of excessive punishment

Bob Wojnowski
The Detroit News
Thomas Kithier

This is what happens when rules and rivalries get twisted, when feelings get hurt, and when adults wield authority at their convenience. Fair play is the basis of all competition, and rules matter. But so does this: What’s fair for the player involved.

Thomas Kithier is one of the best high school players in the state, heading to Michigan State, but at the moment, he’s ineligible, losing his right to play his senior season. His transfer from Macomb Dakota to Clarkston was contested by his former school and upheld by the Michigan High School Athletic Association, which ruled the transfer was primarily for athletic reasons.

Now there are passionate protests, pointed pleas and boiling anger. Tom Izzo called the situation “sad,” and that’s a fine description. I’d also call it ridiculous, with the punishment — sitting an entire season — outweighing the alleged violation.

Kithier is hardly the first player in high school history to transfer. In defense of Macomb Dakota and the MHSAA, athletics do appear to be a significant part of the motivation, as Kithier would get to play with Clarkston point guard Foster Loyer, a future Michigan State teammate. But this also appears to be selective objection by Dakota, which has benefited by accepting transfers in the past.

If Dakota doesn’t relent and allow the MHSAA to lift the ban, it’s playing a nasty game for the wrong reasons, even as the on-court games are under way. Kithier should be reinstated for the next semester, and if he isn’t, every future transfer by every kid in every burg of the state should be as thoroughly scrutinized.

Rivalries matter

Yes, it’s a bigger deal when the player is highly touted and can affect the balance of competition. That’s partly what makes Dakota’s decision reek of retribution. Dakota, with the 6-foot-8 Kithier as its star, lost to rival Clarkston in a regional semifinal last year, and Clarkston went on to win its first Class A state title.

Clarkston would be even stronger with Kithier, and if you don’t think that’s a factor, you’ve never experienced the mix of politics and passion in sports. But prep powerhouses have been built for years on friendships and alliances, which is why rules rightly are in place against “recruiting” from another district. The MHSAA determined there was no recruiting by Clarkston here.

Thomas Kithier

“I’ve been in education for 25 years and this is, I think, about as angry as I’ve ever been, in terms of what’s happening to this young man,” said Dr. Rod Rock, Clarkston school superintendent. “As Thomas Kithier sits, other kids and other schools have transfers, and they play. That’s a complete injustice, and it’s unacceptable.”

I don’t pretend to know the full history of transfers in the state. Maybe the family didn’t handle it ideally, with Kithier clearly expressing a desire to join Loyer at Clarkston, and the two played on summer-league teams together. It was unorthodox, to be sure, as Kithier moved into the Clarkston district on his own this past summer, and his family later followed.

According to the guidelines, the transfer can be challenged if the school deems it “athletically motivated,” so Dakota challenged, which is rare. You could argue it’s right to follow the letter of the rule, although who’s to say a move is solely athletically motivated, and how do you prove it? You could also argue it’s an archaic and largely ignored rule with a severe penalty, and the only person truly getting hurt is the 18-year-old player.

That’s the point Kithier’s family tried to make Monday night to the Chippewa Valley school board, which oversees the Dakota district, insisting the transfer was for academic purposes. Chippewa Valley superintendent Ron Roberts has said they had no choice but to turn it down.

“It appeared clear to us that the circumstances behind the transfer were a direct violation of MHSAA rules,” Roberts said. “That is where Chippewa Valley’s involvement in the process ended.”

The MHSAA concurred and an appeal board upheld the ineligibility. Dakota officials say they have no plans to reverse their stance. The only other possible appeal is with the MHSAA Representative Council, which isn’t scheduled to meet again until March, which seems unreasonable.

No winners

MHSAA spokesman John Johnson said there are only “two or three” transfer disputes per year, which partly explains why this is receiving so much attention.

But Dakota might be the wrong school to be drawing attention, as it has previously accepted transfers with no objection. Just last year, Jack Ballantyne left Warren De La Salle to play his senior season at Dakota with point guard Jermaine Jackson, a future teammate at Detroit Mercy.

The Michigan State combo raises the profile, no doubt. And Clarkston coach Dan Fife’s son, Dane, is an assistant on Izzo’s staff. But this is not a recruiting pitch, as both Kithier and Loyer already signed with the Spartans.

It’s a convoluted tale, and if this is where it ends, that’s too bad. All sides are being slammed, which isn’t necessarily fair either. Dakota is being criticized for perceived pettiness, and its standards are being impugned as the Kithiers explain their preferred academic options. Clarkston is viewed as an opportunistic poacher and the MHSAA is branded as inflexible and uncaring.

The Kithiers’ motives are being questioned, although they claim they’re being targeted by a rule sporadically enforced — when convenient or when someone gripes loudly enough. In some ways, Thomas Kithier is showing the grownups how to act, as he told the News Monday night, “I’m just going to stay positive through the whole situation.”

Good luck with that, kid. When adults with disparate agendas get involved, fairness often gets trampled. If there was a point to be made about transfers, fine, it’s been made. There’s no point in sticking to an excessive sanction that’s stirring vitriol and damaging reputations, and also destroying common sense.