Bridging the great Section V sports divide

Should private schools be allowed to compete in Section V and New York State Public High School Athletic Association post-season tournaments? This question is as old as high school tournaments, but  private schools in New York have competed everywhere, except Buffalo’s Section VI region, since forever.

But 18 Monroe County school superintendents (read more here) have asked NYSPHAA to review the matter. And their Oct. 2 letter makes it pretty clear that they don’t believe private schools should be allowed to participate.

Mark Hare is a member of the GS4A leadership team

Mark Hare is a member of the GS4A leadership team

I think the major objection  is to the decade-long football dominance of The Aquinas Institute, but the letter notes that Aquinas, McQuaid, Bishop Kearney, Our Lady of Mercy, Nazareth Academy (which no lager exists and won’t be winning any more girls titles),  Notre Dame of Batavia and Northstar Christian, despite their small enrollments, have won 85 Section V and six state titles in football, boys and girls basketball and soccer.

“Is it fair, is it equal for non-public schools to participate in sectionals and states?” Pittsford school district superintendent Michael Pero asked.

I can see how it looks unfair. Some of the county’s best athletes go to private schools and compete against students from their home districts for sports laurels. The private schools, the old argument goes, recruit athletes (even though the rules forbid such) and can assemble powerhouse teams as a result.

That’s one way of looking at it. Here’s another.

(Disclaimer: I support Catholic schools, as well as public schools. My two sons are Aquinas graduates and former athletes. My younger son played on the Aquinas 2009 state baseball championship team.)

If there are actual recruiting violations, someone should bring a specific charge. Of course, as Democrat and Chronicle sports columnist Jeff DiVeronica commented last week, private schools beat the bushes for students and use their academic programs, arts and sports facilities as drawing cards. If they don’t do that they will go dark. What they are not allowed to do is to target individual students because they are gifted athletes.

In any event, there’s no way to be sure that  7th- or 8th-grade students, no matter their grade-school prowess on the court or field, will be standout high school athletes. As DiVeronica wrote: “Show me a private school or public school that dominates and I’ll show you a dedicated, hard-working coaching staff that motivates and develops his or her players to be the best.”

The Catholic schools offer tuition assistance to many students—some of whom are athletes, most of whom are not. Some gifted athletes come from suburban school districts, but many come from the city. The Catholic schools offer those kids, among the poorest in our county, a far better shot at graduation, college and a job than they would have in a city high school. Deny those kids a chance to compete at a high level in sports and—kids being kids—many will not take advantage of that opportunity.

There are, in every Catholic high school, families that pay full tuition ($10,000 or more) but financial aid allows those schools to build reasonably diverse—racially, ethnically and socioeconomically—student populations. That’s a big reason we sent our sons to Aquinas. Sports helped make that mix of students possible.

That’s a good thing. That’s a very good thing.

At the end of the day, the success of a school’s sports teams isn’t that big a deal. Brighton, for example,  is not sports juggernaut, but it is widely regarded as one of the finest school districts in the country.

What bothers me most about this public-private debate, however, is—despite the catastrophic failure of high poverty city schools, and despite the compelling evidence that integration can reverse the fortunes of the poorest kids—so many people in this community remain less concerned about the lives of those children than they are about the bling on display in their high school trophy cases.

What matters is that every child has access to a great school regardless of how much  money their parents have. Yes, it’s true that Catholic and other private schools are not the best vehicles for socioeconomic integration. But the dwindling number of Catholic schools in our county have done far more to give some of the poorest kids in our area a real chance to graduate from high school than the suburban districts that would like to prevent those schools from winning more football championships.