As the longtime executive director of the Maryland Public Secondary Schools Athletic Association, Edward "Ned" Sparks has helped preside over all of the state's public high school sporting events for nearly the last three decades.
During that time, the 67-year-old Sparks has played an integral role in the growth of high school athletics around the state. He served as the point man in the merger of Baltimore City schools and the MPSSAA in 1992 and brokered a deal to move the state football championships from the University of Maryland's Byrd Field to M&T Bank Stadium in 2002. Those were just two of his many accomplishments.
A resident of Catonsville, Md., Sparks spoke with PressBox about the scope of his job, the future plans he has for the MPSSAA and the benefits students have gained from participating in interscholastic athletics.
PressBox: As the executive director of the MPSSAA, what does your job entail?
Edward Sparks: I'm the director of the MPSSAA, which is the state high school athletic association for public schools -- 200 high schools, 113,000 students participate, 9,000 coaches, 7,000 officials. Our group sort of oversees and provides a structure for interscholastic athletics in the state, meaning the rules, the regulations and things of that nature that individual schools participate in. [The schools] can all participate on a level playing field, so to speak.
If all of them are following all the same rules and buying into the same set of criteria, then the kids participating, whether they are in Garrett County, Worcester County or anywhere in between, can participate and have a fair shake. It is still educationally based athletics, in that [the MPSSAA] derives its authority in the education component, and that, in itself, makes anything we do educationally sound. Like some other sporting activities, groups and so forth, we have some limitations, simply because we're a product of the school program, not a product of outside recreation or club activities.
PB: With the number of people involved in high school athletics around the state, how does the MPSSAA transition from one sports season to the next without missing a beat?
ES: Well, the important thing to note is that we are really a product of all the schools, and all of the schools have bought into the idea that we're all committed to doing things the same. We are all committed to providing the same opportunities for the kids, no matter what school they are in or what part of the state they are in. So, obviously, the people who work in the local school systems are really the key to the whole program. Because of the few people that are involved, they are obviously not going to try to police things.
It's kind of a self-policing organization, which is certainly the concern of the individual schools, the school systems, the coaches, athletic directors and so forth. They're the ones who set the priorities, and they're the ones who provide the even-keel nature that is out there.
PB: What type of interaction do you have in coordinating schedules and events with everyone who is involved with high school athletics around the state?
ES: We have interaction in many different levels. We have interactions with the schools, the school systems, the coaches, the athletic directors, etc. in our activities. But probably the most visible thing we have interaction with them about is on our state tournaments and state championships, which we have 23 of throughout the year. We obviously have interaction with the teams participating and schools participating.
But we also do other things, like student leadership conferences. We do things like student-athlete scholar awards and things like that, so we have interaction on a lot of different levels. Depending on the sport and the season, it can certainly take on a different nature at different times of the year.
PB: How does the MPSSAA determine which sites get to be the host venues for all the state tournament championships?
ES: We try to host our state championships in the best possible facilities there are in the state. We want to give our students the opportunity to participate and compete for a state championship at the best possible facility in the state for whatever sport it may be. Obviously, football is in a professional venue [M&T Bank Stadium], and basketball is at Xfinity Center. They're certainly the best facilities. In other sports, we try do the same, whether they are track and field, volleyball, field hockey or any other sport. We try to put them in the best possible facility for the experience of those youngsters, because this is the state championship, this is our state and they should have that opportunity.
PB: What future initiatives is the MPSSAA looking into to continue enhancing and growing high school athletics around the state?
ES: There are always challenges. Technology is certainly coming in, and we are happy to have all of our state championships on demand on video streaming across the state. We're happy with that. We think that there are some things we can do for our students off the field a little bit with some leadership opportunities that we can provide for them. Obviously, the nature of sport is changing, to some degree. Some of the sports are taking on a different nature and sort of flare than they did as the years have gone by. We're always trying to be adapted to those changes and trying to be as responsive as we can to what our students want.
PB: What does it mean to you to be able to help lay the foundation for so many athletes to go on and enjoy successful lives as adults following their athletic careers?
ES: We really consider what we do, coupled with the opportunity that students have in high school, as valuing education. They are learning really valuable skills that they will hopefully carry over into adult life and as productive citizens. There are very, very few -- and I think it is probably less than 1 percent -- students who go on to become professional athletes. But 100 percent of them are going to go on to be adults.
We hope that those adults have learned some of the values that they get through participating in interscholastic sports, like all those things about teamwork, hard work, learning to get along with people, playing under a set of rules and playing within a set of rules. Hopefully, they can take those same lessons that they learn and transfer them into lessons and habits as productive adults. We're part of the citizen formation at the school level through their participation in sports.