Op-ed column: Cut school sports before academic programs

Five centuries from now, when archaeologists and anthropologists study 21st century America, the mos

Five centuries from now, when archaeologists and anthropologists study 21st century America, the most puzzling and controversial area of study might very well be the cult of the pig bladder. The enthusiasm over football in Amsterdam, Schenectady, Troy and other school districts in the area makes it readily apparent that the word “fan” is, as some etymologies suggest, simply a diminutive of the words fanatic and fanaticism.

Our fanaticism for football, and sports in general, is not only apparent on our playing fields but on our school boards, which for the most part adamantly refuse to cut sports programs, even if it means cutting teachers’ jobs.

For example, the Greater Amsterdam School District’s 2011-2012 budget eliminated 13 teaching positions, cut four teaching jobs from full-time to part-time and cut several support positions. But the board did not have the stomach for cutting sports, with the exception of Michael Parillo, who voted against the budget. Of the budget, Parillo said, “I feel a lot of cuts were in the wrong areas. We cut academics before we cut athletics. Schools are for academics.”

Failing in mission

So here we are once more — at the beginning of another season of high school football — with the cult of the pig bladder celebrating its high holy days and as usual, in Amsterdam anyway, our Rugged Rams are winning. But with only a 63 percent graduation rate, our high school is failing to fulfill its mission to educate.

Before I proceed, I should make the following disclaimers. I played sports in high school, and I am not opposed to high school sports. But I am opposed to the tail wagging the dog, and I am opposed to school boards who refuse to cut sports at a time when they are raising taxes by as much as 16.5 percent in a single year, as the Greater Amsterdam School District did this year.

And I’ve heard the arguments in favor of sports and not cutting sports ad nauseam, ad infinitum. “The Battle of Waterloo was won on the playing fields of Eton,” so we have been told — a statement that is as hard to prove as a 13-year-old girl’s allegations that she was raped on the playing fields of Eton in 2008 and most likely just as wrong as the 1970s prediction that “When they get to the bottom of Watergate, they’ll find a football coach.” (Aside: Richard Nixon was not a coach, but he did play high-school football.)

Besides, what gave the English the victory over Napoleon at Waterloo may not have been the lessons and discipline they learned from playing cricket, but the discipline of conjugating Latin verbs, or solving algebraic equations or simply the discipline of doing homework every night and turning it in on time.

Then there is the argument that sports teach team spirit, but I can tell you from my experience that team spirit is often a euphemism for herd mentality and a unity brought about by fear of a coach’s abusive authority. Coaches argue that if it weren’t for sports some kids would not stay in school. That might be true, but it does not justify sports any more than increased school attendance would justify paying kids to go to school.

Principal under fire

Supporting or cutting sports is not just about saving taxpayers money or about what sports do or do not teach children. Queen’s Martin Van Buren High School principal, Marilyn Shevell, has been subjected to criticism and abuse by students, parents, coaches and the PTA for her efforts to improve grades and improve the school’s 68.6 percent graduation rate by curtailing sports. A year ago, she reduced practices from six days a week to three and eliminated home games. It’s too early to see if her experiment has worked, and efforts by her opponents to undermine what she is doing may make the experiment fail anyway.

In contrast to Shevell, an Amsterdam football coach got away with a slap on the wrist when he was arrested for DWI in 2006 with a BAC of 0.21. There was little criticism on the part of parents, students or the PTA. And he is still coaching.

Amsterdam residents Michael Chiara and Curtis Peninger were so disturbed by this year’s school tax increase that they formed a group to inform citizens about school budget matters and oppose future tax increases. Their initial meeting at Mount Carmel Church was well-attended.

While the Greater Amsterdam School District does need to make cuts in other areas, the proof of Chiara and Peninger’s resolve to fight taxes will be a resolve to ask for and push hard for cuts in sports funding.

No easy task

The cult of the sacred teacher, represented by one of the most powerful unions in the state, is not as powerful as the cult of the pig bladder, so cutting sports funding won’t be easy. But it is the right thing to do because, as Mr. Parillo stated without eloquence, but with truth on his side, “Schools are for academics.”

Daniel T. Weaver lives in Amsterdam and is a regular contributor to the Sunday Opinion section.

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