Viewpoint Parting is bittersweet for Niehoff, CIAC
Karissa Niehoff had given many of her goodbyes over the course of the summer and admits she was most emotional when she first accepted her new job in April. Still, Monday would be the last time she would shut the door at Connecticut Interscholastic Athletic Conference headquarters in Cheshire.
There would be some tears as she headed off for the rest of her life.
“This has been very bittersweet for me,” Niehoff said. “It was the most wonderful job in the world. I never would have left except for this very opportunity.”
The executive director of CAS-CIAC since January 2011, Niehoff had an early wakeup call Tuesday. There would be an 8 a.m. flight to Indianapolis where she would start her new job the following day as executive director of the National Federation of High School Associations.
As the NFHS celebrates its 100th year in 2018-2019, Niehoff becomes the first female executive director of an organization that oversees high school athletics and performance arts in the U.S. No one has a greater breadth of qualifying experience.
Niehoff began as a physical education teacher at Greenwich High and would emerge as a coach, athletic director and administrator. She was a champion field hockey coach at Litchfield and Joel Barlow and would coach volleyball, softball, track and basketball. By 2000, Niehoff was assistant principal of Har-Bur Middle School in Burlington and by 2004 was principal at Lewis Mills High. She joined the CIAC as deputy executive director in 2010.
Niehoff, who holds a doctorate in educational leadership from UConn, has been on too many state, national and Olympic boards and committees to fit into this space. Know this much. The overarching truth is that all her education and experience has brought her to the most simple and profound of perspectives.
“Even in high school, all the surveys we’ve done, the reason kids participate is to have fun,” Niehoff said. “And all surveys we’ve done, the reason is they quit because it’s not fun.”
There are so many issues, so many components to a state high school organization. The sensationalistic urge is to rush to the most controversial topics. The obsessive urge is to deep-dive into the dynamics of all the committees of principles, athletic directors, coaches that ultimately govern these issues.
No controversy has been more high-profile than the participation of transgender athletes. The story of two such sprinters in Connecticut has spread around the globe. And no argument has lasted longer within the state than the one of where and how schools of choice (Catholic, magnet, technical, etc.) should be placed within the CIAC playoffs. We’ve had some long conversations on such subjects. Her attention to detail and an argument’s nuance is impressive and only half as impressive as her care for high school students.
And that’s why given the forum to leave Connecticut with her strongest message, Niehoff’s words were not surprising. Fairly profound, but not surprising.
“Starting with parents, with school personnel, community personnel, working your way out, we’ve got to understand and appreciate the unique experience of high school sports,” Niehoff said. “This is not the AAU. This not the ticket to collegiate athletics. There must be a better understanding of the value that the high school experience plays in the development of kids who participate.
“We are approaching a critical mass issue when it comes to coaching and officials. We are losing them. Yes, various scheduling issues are legitimate. But we pay officials well. Coaches to do it for their love of the game and we are experiencing a loss of coaches not because of the money or the hours, but because they feel the loss of support. That is a tremendous concern for us. Tremendous.”
This is not only a Connecticut problem, of course, and Niehoff said state associations across the country must do more and more to advocate in communities how to best support kids and coaches.
“It comes down to this: What’s appropriate and what’s not,” Niehoff said. “This is a civility issue. We need to best strengthen our relationship with the media to best communicate with parents on how things are done, why decisions are made and champion the good stories.”
The abuse of officials, the abuse of coaches, the pressing need for a son or daughter to get playing time, yes, the plague of incivility starts with parents and an obsession on college scholarships or a professional dream or a base need to win at all cost.
“I would say to parents in general, as your kids are growing up, and they express an interest in sport, obviously support it,” Niehoff said. “But remember that the No. 1 reason kids engage in sport is to have fun. Why that quit is because it isn’t fun and we can go into all sorts of different layers. But we’ve got to remember these are kids.
“To be the best parent, in sports, music, academics whatever, when it’s about your kids growing up, developing and experiencing the challenges to be the best, parents you’ve got to be positive and supportive and your public demonstration has to reflect this. You can disagree and be concerned — this is sports — but it’s absolutely inappropriate to express your concerns through yelling and bad behavior. That’s what embarrasses kids, hurts coaches, turns our officials away and causes problems with our schools.”
Yes, there have been coaches who have done cruel or stupid things. How that is handled by administrators is vital. Yet internet and social media venues allow the anonymous to post narratives that can masquerade as fact. Truth, falsehoods, it can greatly complicate matters.
“It can get out of control,” Niehoff said. “You ask, where’s the dignity? Where’s the protection for people involved in the situation.”
She sees newspaper space disappearing. She’s seen high school writers dedicated to decades of coverage disappearing.
“It’s an area of concern,” Niehoff said. “In its place are bites of information thrown against the wall. I worry about immediate widespread information that might not be accurate. And how we can recapture some of that communication? People get hooked on what everybody’s responding to and can lose the richer, more detailed elements of a story.”
So Niehoff climbed into a plane bound for Indianapolis pleased with the relationships the CIAC has built from Thompson to New Canaan. A small laugh emerges when told people sometimes mistake the CIAC for the NFL and that she can make arbitrary decisions like Roger Goodell. She is a firm believer the Connecticut model — where principals are the voting members — has brought the importance of sports and academics under one roof. She believes it is something for all states to pursue.
She loves that more Connecticut kids, despite national news to the contrary, are three-sport athletes than ever before. Girls volleyball and lacrosse is exploding. Girls ice hockey is close to having enough schools for CIAC funding. Most of all she doesn’t want any of them to quite because they’re not having fun.
“We serve 110,000 student-athletes,” Karissa Niehoff said. “We all want the same thing. That’s the best experience for every one of them.”