LATHAM — Nearing the start of his seventh year as executive director of the New York State Public High School Athletic Association, Robert Zayas still sees himself more toward the beginning of his tenure.
“This is a position that people really don’t leave,” Zayas said Thursday at the NYSPHSAA office. “I enjoy every single day with it. I really do, so I can’t fathom doing anything else.”
Zayas, 42, arrived in New York in 2012, after climbing through the ranks of the New Mexico Activities Association — that state’s equivalent to the NYSPHSAA — for a decade. Zayas lives in Clifton Park with wife Brooke and daughters Gabby and Olivia, and views his current position as one he’ll stay in as long as possible.
“People ask me about going into college athletics or professional athletics, and I don’t have any interest whatsoever,” said Zayas, who recently completed his doctorate in sports administration. “I enjoy the craziness of this position, it’s challenges, the politicking, the strategy, working on issues — and never forgetting why we do what we do, and that’s to positively impact kids. So I see myself being here for a very long time if things go the right way.”
With fall practices set to start in a few weeks, Zayas sat down to discuss a range of issues related to high school sports with The Daily Gazette. Here are some of the highlights. (Answers have been edited for space.)
Question: We’re a few weeks away from the fall sports season starting up, so a fresh batch of students will become first-time high school athletes. What advice would you give to their parents about how mom and dad should handle the switch from youth sports to high school sports?
Answer: I think parents have to be better informed of what the reality of the situation is. So often, parents are misled to believe that their son or daughter is going to get a college scholarship when, in reality, that’s 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.
The other thing is that parents grow up with their kids playing club soccer, for example, and they’ve been playing club soccer since they were 4. Well, these kids and their parents grow up in the club mentality, meaning they’re paying money and they’re on the team — and so you have a direct path to the club coach. If you’re a club coach and a parent wants to talk to you, you’re probably going to talk to that parent because if you don’t they’re probably not going to be on your team anymore. So parents and kids grow up in this club sport mentality where they paid money and get their say. 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. They’re no longer paying the money and they no longer have a voice on the team, and they don’t know how to operate in that new environment. . . . In high school sports, [you have to] let the coaches coach, let the official officiate, let the players play — and as a parent be a fan. But sometimes that’s a difficult transition for parents.
Q: Any advice for how coaches should help in that process?
A: As a coach, you have to understand that parents have grown up with a certain mentality and they’re not just going to be able to turn it off right away. But as a coach — or athletic director — you have to lay the ground rules and stick to them. It’s one of those things where what you allow, you encourage; what you permit, you promote. If you’re going to permit a parent to talk to you and dictate positions for their kid, you better get ready, because when you do it for one, you’re going to do it for all. Maintaining a precedent and consistency, I think, is critical.
Q: Is there a sport’s growth in the past few years that has surprised you?
A: Unified sports. That’s been amazing. Pairing kids with intellectual disabilities and kids without intellectual disabilities, it’s been amazing to see how much that has grown and the impact that’s had on the school cultures and the kids involved. I don’t think people realize it, but the kids without the intellectual disabilities who are involved in unified sports probably benefit even more than the kids with the disabilities. Any school, from anywhere in the state, if they started unified sports and you talk to those ADs, coaches and administrators, there’s nothing but glowing reviews for that and what it does for the schools.
Q: Right now, there are unified basketball and bowling teams. Any more offerings in the works?
A: I would say cross country is being considered. Some form of track and field. We just implemented wheelchair participation in track and field for the first time. As we move forward, we want to be more inclusive and increase participation.
Q: Outside of unified sports, is there a sport you could see added in New York in the near future?
A: Ultimate Frisbee. In Westchester, I know, they’ve been after me for years about it. There are, like, 2,500 kids that really want to start Ultimate Frisbee.
Nationally? The one that I see — as crazy as it sounds — is esports. It’s just taken off throughout the country. Now, the struggle is, is esports really a sport? Or is it more of an activity? But, regardless, you have kids participating in it, and [you'd have] kids in a positive after-school environment rather than doing other things they shouldn’t be doing . . . I don’t know if we’re at a point as an association to start talking about esports, but one thing I’ve seen at the conferences and workshops I’ve attended is a lot of it’s geared around esports and what states are doing about it.
Q: Some states already have sanctioned esports?
A: Oh, yeah. Quite a few. My former state of New Mexico just voted it in by a slim margin. Another good friend of mine is the director in Arkansas, and he has more kids playing esports in Arkansas than kids playing football. But, again, have to get past the mindset of is it really a sport, and I think some people still struggle with that.
Q: Do you think esports is a sport?
A: I don’t know. I was actually just talking to my nephew about it. He’s in college and was telling me about NBA teams getting involved with esports, so I was asking him about it. He’s 20, and he said it’s awesome.
So I think that’s another thing to consider. We, as mid-40s adults, we might not see it as awesome, but if kids see it as being a cool thing to do, then I don’t know. I think we’d have to take a look at it. It’s not always what we, as adults, think would be beneficial. If kids want to do it, I think we’d have to be open to it.
Q: Among other sports, you played football growing up. What’s your take on high school football? Concerned about its future? Would you let your child play the sport?
A: Well, I don’t have a son — but I would. And the reason I would is because I wouldn’t be sitting in this chair today if I didn’t play high school football. I don’t think I would have gone to graduate school, and I certainly wouldn’t have learned about the committment it takes to get a doctorate. I really attribute my Ph.D to playing high school football, as crazy as that sounds, because the lessons you learn on a football field are really hard to duplicate in other sports or in other capacities of life.
Now, I had no business playing high school football. I weighed 120, 125 pounds — and I also ran cross country, and those just don’t go together. So I got knocked around pretty good, got my share of bumps and bruises, but what I learned from the experience can’t be replaced.
We do need to continue to promote how much positive aspects come from participation in football or we’re going to see a drastically different game in the coming years. . . . I think what we need to do is get over this hump of — I’m a big advocate for the media, but, unfortunately, I think the media emphasises the safety issues in football and completes negates [them in other sports], as if there are no safety issues in other sports. I’ve had so many parents tell me their kid won’t play football, but they’ll play soccer as if soccer has no risk of injury. Or lacrosse, because lacrosse players have never been injured in the history of the game. I mean, girls’ soccer is the second-most concussed sport, but we never hear about that.
Q: At this point, there are a couple instances in which high school sports use video replay at the championship level. Could replay be used significantly more in the future?
A: I don’t think it’s realistic for high school sports. We get that question a lot. Often, we have schools — and a lot of parents — call our office and say they have a video showing the official made a mistake or they have a video saying they should have won the game. We do not review video in those circumstances. We would have to hire additional staff members to handle the amount of video replay we’d have to handle if we did it out of our office.
I don’t think our sections would want it, either. The problem is the videos aren’t consistent. People think of video replay as being like in MLB or the NFL, but they have 30 cameras on a game. We have one person with a cell phone — maybe — standing near the end zone. There’s no way we could possibly have any consistency whatsoever, and at the end of the day we also have to keep in perspective that this is high school sports. It’s important to win and it’s not fun to lose, but that part has to be kept in perspective.