Is a high school sports transfer portal coming to Washington? WIAA considering


Matt White has been coaching soccer at Puyallup High School for over two decades. He sees where high school sports in Washington are headed if an open transfer portal is created and he doesn't like it.

"They're going to destroy high school athletics the way the transfer portal has destroyed college athletics, if they pass this," White said.

In recent weeks, the Washington Interscholastic Activities Association (WIAA) has been considering a new amendment to the high school athletics transfer rule which would allow student-athletes to transfer to other schools freely during their high school careers.

While a vote this spring was a possibility at one point, the WIAA instead is opting for more time and won't vote until next spring at the earliest. Discussions around changes to the current transfer rules remain ongoing.

It could be a drastic change from the current rules, which only allow high school students to transfer to another school and retain their varsity eligibility during the following calendar year if their family has a corresponding residence move. The current guidelines are outlined in section 18.12 of the WIAA handbook.

The handbook also outlines the reasons why the transfer rules are in place.

"The Transfer Rule is intended to create and maintain a consistent and level playing field for students in member schools," it states. "In keeping with the belief that participation in activities is a privilege and not a right, certain standards of eligibility have been established."

Under the current rules, families are allowed a transfer prior to their ninth grade year, even if the school is outside of their district boundaries. For example, a student attending a middle school in the Franklin Pierce school district in Parkland could decide to enroll at Lincoln High School in Tacoma prior to their freshman year without incurring a penalty.

"The current transfer rule is such that if you move schools, you're basically ineligible," said Franklin Pierce district athletic director Wendy Malich, who also serves on the WIAA's executive board. "If you move schools without a corresponding residence change to that school district, you are deemed ineligible. There's a ton of exceptions to that."

One example is the hardship exception. Students can appeal to remain eligible for varsity athletics after transferring, as outlined in section 18.27 of the WIAA handbook.

"A hardship exists only when some unique circumstances concerning the student's physical or emotional status exist and only when such circumstances are not the result of acts or actions by the student or family unit," it states.

Students have the responsibility to present evidence in their hardship appeals. For example, if a student is being bullied at a school, can present evidence of the bullying and wishes to transfer to another school, a hardship exception would likely be granted.


The WIAA began looking at the transfer rule because of some pressure from at least one Washington lawmaker. Mick Hoffman, the WIAA's executive director, told The News Tribune that state Sen. Lisa Wellman of the 41st Legislative District — she's also the chair of the state's Senate Early Learning & K-12 Education Committee — had floated some language surrounding high school sports transfer rules.

"That was part of it," Hoffman said. "We've just seen around the country a lot of legislation being launched. The language was very vague."

Hoffman said he met with Wellman's office and explained why the WIAA's rules are in place. Wellman withdrew the proposed legislation.

"When I was able to meet with the K-12 Senate committee and explained how and why we had our rules, they were satisfied and withdrew," Hoffman said.

The language of the draft legislation is unclear. The News Tribune reached out to Wellman's office several times via phone and email last week, and asked a spokesperson about details of the draft language and clarification regarding the lawmaker's views of the issue. The spokesperson provided no answers, and Wellman did not respond.

"(Wellman) had heard some concerns as she traveled the state," Hoffman said. "Would the WIAA rules negatively impact their goals of mastery education? She and I sat down. It was an educational communication gap."

For now, legislation affecting high school athletics transfer rules in Washington has been avoided. But there's no telling if lawmakers in Olympia will target the WIAA's rules in the future.

"Are we at the right place with those rules to avoid future legislation that would be catastrophic to competitive equity?" Hoffman said. "That's what we want to avoid."


Coupled with the possibility of Name, Image and Likeness (NIL) opportunities, it's easy to see where high school sports could be headed in Washington with an open transfer portal.

Imagine football factories, super teams, talent concentrated in a few desirable programs (more so than now), parents chasing greener grass and precious athletic scholarships for their kids, whether or not they're talented enough to earn them. The gap between haves and have-nots could become a chasm.

"How is that good for schools that are fair-to-middling, or even the school that is poor right now at whatever their sport might be?" White, the Puyallup soccer coach, said. "Kids are gonna go, 'Dude, I'm just a car ride away from having my dreams come true.'

"But we all know that's not the truth. Everyone thinks they've got a D1 scholarship waiting for them. At the expense of what? The connection with classmates, the friends you've grown up with, your high school career with the same people. All those things have benefits. You have to learn how to navigate life, the hard things, the good things."

Longtime Lakes football coach Dave Miller shared similar sentiments. If kids transfer at the first sign of adversity, what life lessons are being taught?

"When I got into coaching 45 years ago, it was to develop boys into men," Miller said. "Parents were on board with that. 'Hold my son to a standard.' Now I see kids just wanting to be crowned. They don't want to do the developmental process which prepares them to be a father, business leader, Army member, whatever."

That being said, a counter-argument exists: It's a free country, after all. Why shouldn't student-athletes be able to transfer and seek the best situation for themselves, without suffering athletic penalties? If an athlete doesn't feel they're growing at their school, why shouldn't they look elsewhere?

"I guess there's good and bad," said Lincoln football coach Masaki Matsumoto. "I know that kids want to go to a good program where there's an offseason program, where there's accountability. So I understand why kids would want to go somewhere else if they're not in a good program.

"But parents are also unreasonable. If their son's a freshman and he's not playing varsity, they might think he's better than he is. ... It's a microwave society now. Parents and kids are all about getting that offer. ... I see both sides."


Malich isn't sure where this is all going. She understands both sides, too.

"I would like families to be able to do what they feel they need to do with their students," she said. "But we also don't want to see sport factories with our schools."

The WIAA has pressed pause, deciding not to have its Representative Assembly vote on the amendment this spring. Instead, it formed a 22-person statewide committee to look at the rule and come up with an amendment that would have a real chance at being passed.

The amendment will go through the WIAA's process, and could come to a vote in the spring of 2025. Any changes would take effect by the 2025-26 school year.

Jeff Lowell, the Bellevue School District athletic director, is the co-chair of the committee. He said the committee is in the beginning stages of the process and hasn't yet discussed concrete amendment ideas or whittled a list of options down. In his view, there are two trains of thought: the importance of educational-based athletics and the ability of parents to have free choice of the schools they want their children to attend.

It's worth noting that students are currently free to transfer to other schools for academic reasons at any time if they wish. It's just that their athletic eligibility doesn't always go with them.

"What we're thinking about is: are the rules in line with today's world?" Lowell said. "What is the reality of family situations, of families seeking out what's best for their kids and are those things compatible with the rules as they're written right now?"

The big question: Where is this all headed? Will there be an open transfer portal, effectively allowing a student to transfer up to 12 times during the course of a high school career? Will the WIAA decide to keep its existing rules in place, as they're currently constructed and written? Or perhaps leaders will opt for some type of happy medium — maybe a one-time, penalty-free transfer during a student-athlete's high school career, for example.

"I think there's a consensus among the group that the work that's been done by (the WIAA), which puts a system in place that provides options for students, is solid," Lowell said. "To just throw that out is probably detrimental to the association and to students. I think there is a real hope that what we can do is seek that sweet spot, that common ground and take a look at what's causing all of these eligibility panels."

At the top of the committee's mind is framing an amendment that aligns with the state's laws and as Hoffman stated, would be best protected against future legislation.

"We need to make sure our current rules meet what other RCWs (state laws) are asking us to meet," Lowell said. "Things like school choice, that's an RCW. If our rules run counter, then we have an obligation to change those things."

Hoffman is staying apprised of the committee's progress but said he's trying to stay out of their way and let them work, for the most part. For what it's worth, he shares some of the common concerns voiced by coaches.

"College sports have become big business," Hoffman said. "High school sports are still community-based. We want to try to keep that. The whole intent of the WIAA is to try to provide governance to provide competitive equity. If we allow super teams, we've lost that.

"We're in this for what education-based athletics are about. Our job is to provide every kid with a chance to compete and develop perseverance. If we end up with super teams where students feel like they have no chance, students won't try out and we're going to lose students."

Hoffman said he's hoping for a compromise somewhere in the middle, perhaps the one-time transfer or something similar.

All eyes will be on the WIAA's committee, which has its work cut out for it and faces a dilemma: Don't do enough and find the WIAA susceptible to future legislation; do too much and permanently alter the course of Washington state's high school sports, the closest thing remaining to a pure, community-based sports experience in today's world.

Lowell said he feels confident the committee will find the right balance.

"It's a great group from across the state," he said. "They're very interested and committed."