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Evaluating The High School Sports Crisis

Sports has long blazed new paths in American society.

Look no further than the importance of Jackie Robinson breaking the color barrier in 1947 or the 1980 U.S. Olympic hockey team’s shocking gold medal for proof.

Is it possible sports will show the way when it comes to school mergers in Chautauqua County?

It has been a mountainous climb to merge schools in our county regardless of arguments made about mergers improving the quality of instruction and providing more opportunities for children, in some cases at a lower cost. For varying reasons, however, mergers are turned down when they do make it through the tortuous merger process that is part of New York state law. We have known for years about the declining enrollments of our school districts, but knowledge of the numbers has only twice translated into merged school districts.

Mergers are often defeated by intangible arguments, things like loss of community identity, or specious arguments like lack of opportunity to play sports or be in the band. It would appear recent history is turning those arguments on their head, because school sports teams are now becoming a casualty of the decades-long trend of declining enrollments.

Even as recently as 10 years ago, one or two small schools would see the need to share one or two sports teams. Now, enough schools are looking to share football teams that Section 6 will be able to eliminate an entire division of competition next year, according to discussion at a recent Clymer Central School board meeting. Athletic directors throughout the region see sports mergers as the best way to make sure sports are even offered to area youth. The athletic directors are doing the right thing, but their solution is only a short-term fix.

We have a proud athletic tradition here in Chautauqua County, but let’s be honest – there aren’t many Shane Conlans or Jenn Suhrs in our midst. Our area is more likely to make an imprint on the world using our child’s brains than our child’s athletic prowess. Alas, eliminating French classes or advanced chemistry doesn’t raise as many eyebrows or anger as many parents as liminating soccer or football.

Much like increased school aid and the STAR program, athletic mergers allow taxpayers to keep putting off consolidation by papering over the systemic problems with having 18 school districts in a county of roughly 134,000 people. We wonder whether area residents would be more willing to merge schools if sports simply had to be dropped when there aren’t enough participants.

Perhaps that would be the hole in the dam that opens the floodgates of consolidation.

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Dropping sports teams when there are too few students to play is an intriguing idea.

Honestly, it isn’t going to happen. If merging sports teams are necessary so there are opportunities for students to play, then there should be some ground rules.

Sports mergers should only happen if there are not enough kids to play. The process now is to start figuring out as much as nine months before a sports season happens if there will be enough students to man a sports team. Mark Petersen, Cassadaga Valley Central School athletic director, recently detailed for school board members, in early December, low participation for the varsity football team for next year.

Children develop differently – meaning a child who isn’t ready physically to play football in the winter of 2013 might be ready to play by the fall of 2014. Adults also can’t forget that kids change their mind frequently. Soccer might not sound interesting in the winter, but having a friend on the soccer team may prompt someone who hasn’t kicked a soccer ball in a couple of years to come out for the school soccer team.

Petersen and his fellow athletic directors know this is a faulty way of measuring future youth participation, but they are trying to work within the serpentine process required to share teams. A request is made by the schools involved to the Chautauqua-Cattaraugus Athletic Association. CCAA approval sends the request on to Section 6, which then sends the request up the chain to the New York State Public High School Athletic Association. The long notification process to the league, Section 6 and the state is far too long and ends up pressuring teenagers who feel more than enough pressure in the course of their daily lives. Because of this ridiculous timeline, adults can place all the blame on kids for not signing up early enough for sports. When a sports merger blows up, the adults end up having someone to blame.

Local athletic directors need to push both the Chautauqua-Cattaraugus Athletic Association and the New York State Public High School Athletic Association of streamlining the team merger process. If it can’t be streamlined, perhaps our local sports teams should strike out on their own like the Monsignor Martin teams do in Buffalo. After all, nothing says our students have to participate in NYSPHSAA sports if this problem persists.

The adults in charge of high school athletics need to solve this problem.