On July 2, Kerwin Urhahn, executive director of the Missouri State High School Activities Association (MSHSAA) for the past 14 years, became president of the National Federation of State High School Associations (NFHS) for the 2020-21 academic year.
Prior to joining the MSHSAA in 2006, Urhahn served as superintendent of schools for the Portageville School District (PSD) in Portageville, Missouri. He also taught all levels of high school mathematics and coached volleyball, basketball, baseball and golf at Bloomfield High School from 1991 to 1997, and he assumed the role of athletic director in 1994. Urhahn was named principal in 1997 and served three years before becoming the superintendent of PSD in 2000.
A member of numerous professional organizations, Urhahn is a representative on the Missouri Association of School Administrators (MASA) State Accountability Committee, and he also serves on the Missouri Department of Elementary and Secondary Education MSIP Performance Committee. From 1998 to 2001, he served on the MSHSAA Southeast Investigative Committee. Nationally, Urhahn previously chaired the NFHS Technology Committee.
Urhahn, who served on the MSHSAA Board of Directors prior to joining the staff, earned both bachelor’s and master’s degrees from Southeast Missouri State University, an educational specialist designation from St. Louis University and a doctorate from St. Louis University.
Question: You’re two months in as president of the NFHS and it’s imaginable they have felt like two of the longest months you’ve ever had. Tell us about the start of your term.
Urhahn: Overall, the last six months have felt like several years, but the reality of it is, everybody across the country is going through the exact same thing. We are all dealing with this, and we are all working together to try to find solutions for many things that don’t offer very many good options.
Question: What has your main role been in trying to find those solutions, both as executive director of the MSHSAA and as NFHS President?
Urhahn: As NFHS President, it’s important for me to be a facilitator for state association executive directors, and then relay those discussions to the NFHS Board of Directors to make sure we’re doing everything we can to offer our states as many resources as possible. (NFHS Executive Director Karissa Niehoff) and (NFHS COO Davis Whitfield) have done a fantastic job of distributing information on things going on around the country.
Question: How has your experience as a longtime state association employee and executive director prepared you for what will be an extraordinary year as NFHS President?
Urhahn: Something I learned as a teacher and principal prior to my time with the MSHSAA is that you have to just ‘go with the flow.’ You may have all sorts of things planned for a particular day and you may not get to any of them with the way things can come up unexpectedly. You may not be prepared, but you just take care of the things that need taken care of – one step at a time – and keep moving on to the next one. Karissa, Davis and every state association executive director have had to do that each and every day over the past several months.
Similar to the issues that emerged surrounding concussions in high school sports, we are learning on the fly with the COVID-19 pandemic. We certainly know a lot more than we knew on March 15. As a leader, you’re not always given all the information you need at the beginning, but you make the best decision you can with the information you have at the time, and then go from there. And as more information is uncovered, there is a constant need to re-evaluate and adjust with a focus on what is best for the greater good.
Question: Taking action against social injustice and promoting diversity, equity and inclusion have also emerged as major topics within our society. How can high school sports and performing arts play a role in aiding these causes?
Urhahn: We have the greatest platform in this country to teach diversity, equity and inclusion through high school sports and performing arts. With everything that is going on in our world, the NFHS Board of Directors has made it a priority for the NFHS to promote diversity, equity and inclusion in its work. The goal of a team is to win, but its ultimate purpose is to teach life lessons.
Some of the most important life lessons we can have right now are those that teach us to accept everyone, treat them with respect and make them feel a sense of belonging. It’s critical that we keep these things at the forefront of our minds when we are working with kids, and it’s not easy to talk about them sometimes. These conversations can be extremely difficult, but we must have them. If we aren’t willing to talk about it and put it out there for discussion, then it just goes unsaid and we go along with the status quo. We want our locker rooms to be great ‘melting pots’ where it doesn’t matter what race, gender or sexual orientation a student is; the focus is on how he or she can help the team be the best it can be.
Question: What are some of the additional NFHS Board of Directors priorities for 2020-21?
Urhahn: One of the NFHS Board of Directors priorities that has been in place for some time is to continue developing NFHS operations from a technological standpoint. A great recent example of improvement in this area is the new Center for Officials Services (COS), which has been put in place to serve all the needs of the officials in member states. Initiatives like this help achieve the NFHS’ ultimate goal, to be a service-oriented organization for its state associations.
Question: This fall, students in several states will not be able to participate in high school sports or performing arts. How do we keep them engaged?
Urhahn: The NFHS has done a very good job of trying to get active on social media and trying to find ways to get kids to be involved; letting them know they’re not alone. Another thing the NFHS has done well is encouraging state associations to look at their restrictions for out-of-season student-athlete contact for coaches. Particularly in states where fall activities aren’t being held, I think it’s important we do everything we can to allow coaches some type of connection with their kids because those positive interactions and relationships are vital. In normal times, those rules are in place to make sure no one gains a competitive advantage, but right now, the opportunity to give these kids a connection outweighs that competitive advantage. Again, the NFHS has done a great job of bringing to light the different approaches state associations are taking on this issue, and it’s allowing more states access to resources and ideas they might not have come up with on their own.
Question: Injury risks, particularly related to concussions, have been a cause for concern in recent years, and concerns over the current state of the pandemic could potentially affect participation numbers. Does the NFHS need to take measures to help reinvigorate interest?
Urhahn: I don’t think the NFHS has to necessarily reinvigorate interest because I believe kids have a very strong desire to belong to something right now. I think kids will be fired up at the opportunity to participate and that communities will jump at the chance to get out and support them. We need to continue our messaging on the value of high school sports and performing arts and what they can do for kids. We know education-based activities are about far more than wins and losses and that’s what sets us apart. If we don’t advocate for the things that make our programs special, we will allow other entities such as club sports organizations to get these kids’ attention and occupy their time and effort.
Question: How do we address the shortage of high school sports officials and how it may worsen with many officials being part of the “at-risk” demographic for COVID-19?
Urhahn: That is a very difficult situation and one that we are certainly dealing with in Missouri; our numbers are down because of it. Many people are concerned about being at risk when they go out and officiate and we totally understand that. We tell everyone that is a personal decision that doesn’t have a right answer. The only thing the NFHS can stress is that if we want these athletic contests to take place, we need to have officials. Continuing to push our #BecomeAnOfficial campaign is critical to getting more people involved, especially our younger people who may have never thought about officiating before. We hope they see it as a great way to give back to the community and be involved, get some exercise and make a little extra money as a part-time job.
Question: What would a successful year as NFHS President look like in your mind?
Urhahn: I think success would mean that kids are playing safely across the country and that the NFHS has played the most effective role possible to help make that happen. I think success also means that we provide an opportunity for state associations to get together at the end of the year to celebrate a year unlike any we’ve ever experienced, and one that we’ll hopefully never experience again. I’m hopeful that when we get to that time – sometime around the end of June – that the conditions of the pandemic will allow us to hold an event like that, where we can all come together as an NFHS family.
Nate Perry is coordinator of media relations at the National Federation of State High School Associations.