NYSPHAA: Combining Teams for Athletic Participation: Part IV

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Contributing Writer
Bill Burk

Last part on merged sports, I promise.
Here’s a story I heard. Back in the day there were no high school sports mergers. High school athletes could go play anywhere, as long as their own school didn’t offer that sport. The section commissioner just had to sign off on the request and did so routinely in the interest of providing opportunity to student-athletes.
Then, as you might imagine, something happened. It went something like this; School X didn’t have a wrestling team but had four very good wrestlers enrolled. School Y had a wrestling team, lacking only a few wrestlers in weight classes that, coincidentally, wrestlers from School X filled nicely. The commissioner, using precedence as his guide, signed the paper-work and School Y got their stacked team. School Z from the same league had a very good wrestling team of their own, but not nearly as good as the team of Schools X and Y combined, and cried foul. At the end of the season, the section ended up naming both Schools X/Y and Z co-league champions, thereby confirming the adage that no good deed goes unpunished.
NYSPHAA has since stepped in to regulate the process; they have a vested interest in participation and filling their varied classes. Some schools claim they combine for safety reasons. That may be true but, especially in high contact sports, is it safe for schools that don’t merge, and use underclassmen to field teams, to compete against merged schools who have starting rosters filled with more mature upperclassmen? A coach in practice can control the contact and the competition between their big players and their small players a whole lot better than they can control those same mismatches on game day. The other argument for mergers is lack of participation. The harsh answer to that is if there isn’t enough interest in your school for an activity, you don’t host that activity. Do we merge for marching bands? For school plays? If not enough students take advanced chemistry, do we merge and offer the class? We don’t. We cancel the activity. If a school is able to field a varsity team of mostly upperclassmen, and also support two (or more) JV teams, then providing opportunity is not an issue; their numbers are just fine and they shouldn’t seek mergers to compete in Class C or D. NYSPHAA, with their merger rules, have set out to make mergers attractive to schools, keeping them in lower classifications, ensuring their competitive advantage.
To be clear, I’m not against schools merging sports teams. I get that schools don’t make the rules, they just play by them. My grief is with a system that lets schools combine to make the competitive landscape of high school sports patently unfair. Combine all you want…just compete against schools with the same advantages. Personally, with a zealous affection for the underdog, and a righteous lean toward justice, I think schools should avoid mergers. It’s not possible to admire a combined school lumping up on a “Genuine” school in sports in their same division…I’m sorry, it just isn’t. And my guess is that schools (and communities) aren’t going to stand long for it, they will seek to merge to compete and keep their student-athletes safe. It has already become an arms race; this won’t stop, except instead of recruiting individual students, like back in the day, schools will start to recruit other schools.
And after all that, I understand it’s naïve to think that high schools and their coaches won’t seek every competitive advantage. Private (and Catholic) schools already recruit, setting up financial packages for athletes to play. Public school coaches actively recruit; they poach players from other schools when they can. They peruse the tax rolls to figure out if parents own property in their school district. Schools turn a blind eye; it’s another FTE for them. Coaches rejoice or lament, depending on which direction the transfer travels. Coaches pick up the phone in the off season trying to build their team, instead of looking in their own classrooms and hallways, they go through opponents’ rosters to see if there’s a phone call worth making. A school picks up a soccer stud, a lefty arm, team speed and a heavyweight. I just don’t think we should pretend it doesn’t happen.

To read more of Bill Burk’s reflections, astute observations and a rant or two on the wide world of sports, visit www. jamestowngazette.com and click on Bill Burk’s page. The Jamestown Gazette is proud to present our county’s most creative and original writers for your enjoyment and enlightenment.