The Maine Principals’ Association offers an easy target for people.

Realignments. State championship sites. Ticket prices. Seems like every time somebody has a gripe, it’s almost always “the MPA’s fault.” Don’t believe me? Stand outside the Augusta Civic Center any evening in February and you’ll hear all the ways in which the state’s governing body for high school athletics has screwed up everything from the schedule to the price of a can of peas at the local Hannaford supermarket. Snow flurries? MPA’s fault. Olive Garden has a 75-minute wait list? Probably the MPA bigwigs had something to do with it. The price of gas went up two cents this week?

You get the idea.

I’m here to tell you that the MPA got this one exactly right. There’s no reason for playoffs in the sport of Unified basketball.

None. Zip. Zero. Nada.

Look, I cover high school sports in Maine for a living. I’ve covered Cony-Gardiner football. I’ve covered regional finals and state championships in every sport under the sun (or snow-bearing clouds). I’ve watched our state’s finest student-athletes perform at the top of their respective games. I’ve seen buzzer-beating wins, miraculous comebacks and David downing Goliath. None of it — not one single victory or six-goal title-winning effort — ever matched the absolute delight that comes from watching a Unified basketball game.

Unified basketball is simple. It takes everything that’s good about sports in schools and opens it up to a group of students who otherwise would never be exposed to teamwork, a game plan, a cheering crowd or the feeling of competition. It’s so wonderful in its sheer execution I’ve never met a single soul who walked away and didn’t feel good about it.

But there was that one time.

There was that one time it made me feel horrible. That one time I thought something had gone terribly astray. That one time I realized that, once again, the adults had messed everything up for our children.

That was the day I learned there were playoffs, and a state championship, at stake for Unified programs.

In partnership with Special Olympics, Unified basketball’s mission is simple. It’s inclusion. It’s opening athletics up to everybody, not just to those kids from families with the means to travel all over the state and beyond competing athletically year-round. It’s about bringing the best parts of sports and schools — the very reason we value high school athletics as meaningful parts of the learning process for young adults — to everybody.

And as soon as you add playoffs and a championship of any kind, you’ve made it about competition. Competition goes against the very foundation of Unified basketball’s mission.

Competition is not inherently bad. Learning to compete, preparing to compete, being willing to be more as a teammate than you are as an individual, are all noble pursuits. But competition for the sake of winning is where it all went awry.

I stood at the center of Edward Little High School’s basketball court last March, only minutes after Madison claimed the Unified basketball state championship, and spent several minutes talking with Jenny Dean. Dean, then a senior at Madison, was one of the partner athletes with the Bulldogs. Her enthusiasm was infectious, her emotion palpable. Having spent an entire winter working with the athletes Unified opens the game to gave her an immeasurable appreciation for what the Bulldogs had accomplished and how much it meant to the players on the team.

But here’s the problem with winning a state championship: The only people who got to feel that at the end were those involved with the Madison program. In a state where there are now 61 Unified basketball programs, that left more than 98 percent of participating athletes having ended their seasons with losses.

Those seasons ended with the realization, “Your team was not good enough. You were not good enough.”

I can’t help but feel like that’s the same message our society has too often sent to those same students, both inside and outside our athletic communities. Something designed to be good, open, beautiful and uplifting instead became about the bad things sports — things like finding loopholes in the system, opportunity for only a select few, accusations and defeat.

It made me feel sick to my stomach.

Which is precisely how I felt when I learned there were playoffs for Unified basketball teams.

And it’s why I’m telling you now that the MPA got this decision exactly right.

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