Shenendehowa athletic director Chris Culnan finds himself discussing playing time with parents of high school athletes more often than in the past.
He’s not the only one, either. Culnan has a theory as to why that’s the case.
“What we are experiencing now is a generation of kids being put in leagues, AAU and clubs at an extremely young age, and the investment can be thousands upon thousands of dollars,” Culnan said. “You get to the world of high school athletics, and parents think there needs to be some kind of a payoff. In reality, that doesn’t necessarily align with a coaches’ goal. The coaches’ goal is the team goal. For some parents, that goal is secondary.”
Culnan is a proactive administrator who has his coaches discuss playing time in preseason meetings with parents. It’s something New York State Public High School Athletic Association Executive Director Robert Zayas encourages, and a topic he discussed with The Daily Gazette last summer.
“I think parents have to be better informed of what the reality of the situation is,” Zayas said. “So often, parents are misled to believe that their son or daughter is going to get a college scholarship when, in reality, that is not possible. Statistically, it’s just not. I see so often where there is a U12 soccer team and every single kid on that youth soccer team believes — because they’ve been told this — that they’re going to get a full-ride Division I scholarship … So often, I feel like parents are being misled, and that’s concerning for me because they just don’t understand how the recruiting process works and how there aren’t that many scholarships.”
Section II Executive Director Ed Dopp acknowledged that parents are stepping forward more often to discuss playing time issues.
“While that is definitely happening with more frequency, it’s still a relatively small number,” said Dopp, who had previous stints at Shaker coaching baseball and serving as its athletic director. “Most parents are supportive, understanding and follow the process.”
Like Culnan, Schalmont varsity girls’ soccer coach Alaine Lange takes a proactive approach when dealing with playing time.
“It has become a big issue in recent years,” the state championship-winning coach said. “Because a lot of our girls play multiple sports, I will ask them what their No. 1 sport is. If it is soccer, and that is the sport they put the most effort into, I will try to get that player as much time as possible. I am up front with them so they understand what to expect. The more you put in, the more you play.”
An issue with playing time factored in Gary Sears leaving the Niskayuna varsity softball team after one season, one which saw his team make significant strides forward. Several supporters spoke on his behalf at a recent school board meeting. A smaller group expressed their dissatisfaction with his coaching style.
“When the word got out that he had resigned, you had groups show up,” Niskayuna principal John Rickert said. “Some of them were singing his praises. Some had issues.”
Sears said he handed in a letter of resignation months ago.
“I was 99 percent pleased with the support. Niskayuna is a great community with great kids,” said Sears, a highly successful travel league coach with collegiate credentials. “It’s somewhat a combination of things, but it boils down to a couple of parents complaining about playing time. I’ve been doing this a long time, and it wasn’t something I wanted to deal with.”
School board meetings have become popular sounding boards in recent years for athletes and their parents. A handful of student-athletes presented accusation of bullying by Saratoga Springs varsity girls’ soccer coach Adrienne Dannehy to that district’s school board in 2016. A large group of supporters countered at a follow-up board meeting, and Dannehy ultimately kept her position.
“My last 10 years as an athletic director and coach at Shaker, there seemed to be an increase in the degree to which they would express themselves, and the manner they would express themselves,” Dopp said of parents, student-athletes and community members with concerns. “Sometimes, instead of talking to the coach, they’ll attack the coach and/or go over their head.”
Seemingly, no coach or athletic director is immune to the playing time issue.
“I’ve seen it at both schools,” said first-year Mohonasen athletic director Dave Austin, who previously filled the Maple Hill AD role. “You listen and let them know their concerns are being heard, but it can be frustrating. Sometimes, they [parents] are getting bits and pieces. There are situations that are difficult to respond to diplomatically.”
“Every sport, every community, every school has parents that feel their kid should be playing more,” Sears said.
Zayas said he can understand where parents are coming from when they see a son or daughter on the bench.
“Parents and kids grow up in this club sport mentality where they paid money and get their say,” he said. “Then, as soon as they get to high school sports, that all changes. And parents — and to no fault of the parents — get confused by that change because for the last 10 years they’ve gotten to go to the coach and voice their concerns and ask why Johnny isn’t getting to play midfield. In high school, that becomes a totally different dynamic.”
Schenectady athletic director Steve Boynton makes a point to talk about playing time in preseason gatherings with parents.
“With varsity parents, we’ll tell them it’s going to be the best athletes on the floor. The goal is to win games,” Boynton said. “With modified parents, I tell them to contact me if their kid is not playing. Modified is for learning techniques. It’s about developing skills and getting comfortable in game situations. We want them all to get time.”
Culnan said he takes every conversation that pertains to a member of his coaching staff quite seriously.
“You have to give the job what it deserves,” he said. “You cannot dismiss a parent. Sometimes, there is real validity to their concern. If I am meeting with a parent, and if there is substance to an issue, I would begin an immediate investigation. Contact the HR department. Call in the coach. Conduct interviews with students and assistant coaches. You want to find out what is real.”
Concerns raised that went beyond playing time led to action in a handful of cases in recent years, with Saratoga baseball and basketball coaches Dean Bailey and Jack Brock, and Shenendehowa and Burnt Hills-Ballston Lake lacrosse coaches Chuck Holohan and Jake McHerron losing their jobs after in-season investigations determined that they had crossed acceptable lines.
“I always told my coaches, ‘Don’t put me in a position where I can’t defend you,'” Dopp said.
“You have conversations with parents, and you listen,” Austin said. “Ultimately, you have to make your own evaluations. That’s your job.”