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Andrews Osborne boys soccer's state title run watershed, but does open broader, uncomfortable conversation | Opinion

Nov. 14—When you wade into water off a beach, part of the challenge to stay in control isn't just the waves above water. It's also the undercurrent that permeates.

Undercurrent is something for which one should be prepared — in water, as well as in life.

Anyone involved in high school soccer could sense this undercurrent permeating from a mile away.

Andrews Osborne embarked on an unbeaten Division III boys soccer state title run, culminating in a 2-1 state final win over Worthington Christian on Nov. 11 in Columbus.

Andrews Osborne vs. Worthington Christian boys soccer: Phoenix reign, 2-1, for Division III state championship

With that run came an inevitable undercurrent: How would the Phoenix's run be perceived because of roster complexion, comprised of predominantly international student-athletes?

On this much, everyone can agree as far as basic facts:

—AOA made its first boys soccer state championship match appearance in school history and won it.

—It departed the Ohio High School Athletic Association as a member school in 2008 due to international-student policy at that time before returning in 2018.

—It has 44 boys and 38 girls in grades 10-12 according to OHSAA enrollment figures.

—It has a competitive-balance addition by the OHSAA's formula of 98 — the largest addition in Ohio D-III boys soccer — for an "adjusted enrollment" of 142, 40 below the D-II cutoff.

—The Phoenix's roster, per the school, spans 11 countries. Spain has the most student-athletes in the side with 12, followed by the United States (five), Italy (three) and the Dominican Republic (two). There is one student-athlete each from Ghana, Kazakhstan, Kenya, Guatemala, Mexico, Japan and China.

Andrews Osborne boys soccer: Ishmael Mensah, Manu Nieto paths to AOA embody beauty, reach of world's game

—The side, as it typically does, came together around Labor Day, then acclimated and went unbeaten at 18-0-1. That included impressive wins over sides near (Harvey, Kirtland and Beachwood) and far (Kidron Central Christian, Hanoverton United, Ottoville and Worthington Christian).

—Both its regional appearances have come in the last three seasons.

From there, we begin to deviate.

Does a roster comprised mostly of international student-athletes, ones who by definition will not be based in Willoughby or the United States permanently, lay equal claim to the American dream through the lens of high school sports, in this case pursuing a boys soccer state championship in Ohio?

An optimist will contend it's the American dream's embodiment, providing opportunity to people coming to our country, striving for it and earning their place as so many of our ancestors did, albeit in their case for the long term and not to study abroad.

A contrarian will contend an international roster playing for Ohio's state championship while most do so with firmer community roots is an egregious distortion of what high school sports "should" be.

It's the most wide-ranging example of the private school scope debate we've had for decades. It's just that in those instances, it's about communities and counties, not countries.

The argument took notable turns over the last few weeks, from reasonable dialogue to abhorrence. Engagement on the pitch, in the stands, in the parking lot and on social media from grumbles to blatent dissent and reckless accusations. Chants of "USA! USA!" and pleas to "Speak English" — knowing the implication.

The litany of ways in which this argument can foment can't be covered succinctly. Let's try one facet, though, to start.

The OHSAA has a resource center on international and exchange students, available through its eligibility section.

"Since its inception in 1908, the member schools of the OHSAA have welcomed international students to our state and into the athletics programs sponsored by the member schools with certain restrictions," an OHSAA introduction reads. "Unfortunately, the history of this Association and others like ours within the USA has demonstrated that students from outside the United States are very often targets for exploitation and recruitment for purely athletic reasons.

"In order to keep the playing field level for both the international student and for students who live in Ohio, to prevent displacement and to reduce the opportunity for recruiting, the membership has approved three ways by which an international student may participate in an Ohio member school."

Those three exceptions are as "a participant in a recognized visitor exchange program," "submission of a court-approved document certifying the student's adoption by a legal resident of the school district in which the student is attending" or "if his or her participation is mandated by state law."

The first exception features several restrictions: It must be for a maximum of one school year, the student cannot have participated in a previous exchange program in this country, the student has a J-1 Visa, evidence doesn't exist of "direct placement for athletic purposes into a specific member school" and the maximum for students from one exchange program to one school is five.

Under the third exception for state law, documentation for an F-1 visa must be submitted. An F-1 visa is a student visa for a temporary non-immigrant stay, per the U.S. State Department.

There is also a boarding exception, Bylaw 4-6-2, Exception 8, which states: "A student who is enrolled in a member school that provides housing for the student and accepts the role of the parent in loco parentis. The student shall be ineligible until ruled eligible by the Executive Director's Office." In those instances, the school must provide the OHSAA proof of parents' out-of-state and student-athletes' on-campus residency and is approved by the state case-by-case.

If AOA's roster is configured within all that OHSAA framework, passing stringent protocols, then it's within the rules.

AOA should welcome reasonable scrutiny by the OHSAA and broader public, in part because this extent and success of an international roster is so new to all of us, AOA included.

If that includes the OHSAA membership revisiting and tweaking international and boarding protocol following this state title charge — provided the dialogue is measured and fair, then by all means revisit and tweak.

Now of course, if there is proof of system manipulation by AOA or any school, they earn their fate. Those guilty of exploitation should be held accountable, ostracized and punished severely. Until then, however, beyond the moral dilemma detractors contend, there is no clear "violation" of anything.

We should have this conversation. We NEED to have this conversation.

But where it loses me is when the counterpoint materializes as personal beratement of student-athletes — particularly with racial or ethnic undertones — or is outright defamation of Andrews Osborne without evidence improper conduct is transpiring.

It is a complicated conversation.

Within the smallest division of boys soccer in Ohio, who lays rightful claim to success?

Is it a public school such as Ottoville, with 50 boys in grades 10-12 according to the OHSAA, having a once-in-a-generation side and getting on an inaugural state final four push when everything aligns?

Is it a public school, say Beachwood from our News-Herald coverage area ranks or Hanoverton United, that happens to have a small community but the infrastructure and caliber to factor yearly into the D-III contender mix?

Is it a perennial private school power, such as Worthington Christian, with similar small enrollment but broader reach?

Is it a boarding school such as AOA, with all aforementioned caveats?

Or, under OHSAA rules set forth, is it all of the above embracing their own vision of the American dream?

AOA's postseason advancement has been historic, a memory these young men will take with them worldwide for the rest of their lives.

But it also has had an uncomfortable undercurrent, and we can all sense it.

Undercurrent is something for which one should be prepared — in water, as well as in life.

Unfortunately, on this one, it's impossible to reach consensus on how to navigate it — even if, at minimum, the young men at the heart of it are studying abroad while playing the game they love and deserve humane treatment while doing so.