|NEVER ON A SUNDAY|
MPSSAA rules currently prohibit public schools from playing or practicing on Sunday. Will it ever change? Don’t bet on it.
By Craig Amoss
All the leaves were brown and the sky was gray in Frederick County on the morning of October 29, 2011. But from those gray skies snow began dropping at an ever-increasing rate. It might have been almost perfect conditions if the Frederick County Nordic Skiing championships had been scheduled for that morning, but the county cross country championships, slated to begin at 10 am at Thomas Johnson High School, were clearly going to have to be postponed. In response to the inclement weather, the Maryland Interscholastic Athletic Association announced the postponement of two of its football until the next day, which happened to be a Sunday.
Thomas Johnson coach Nick Snyder, whose school was playing host to the meet, could make no such announcement since Maryland public schools are prohibited from playing or practicing on Sunday.
“We were looking at the possibility of not having it,” says Snyder, now the head cross country and track coach at Hagerstown Community College. “We had regionals coming up that Thursday, which didn’t leave us much time. We did the meet on Monday, but some schools held out their varsity kids and ran their jayvees.”
Sunday scheduling can be a difficult balancing act between encroaching on what is still typically thought of as a family day while still providing schools enough flexibility to fulfill their schedules. Some states, such as Maryland, do not allow it all; others have no hard and fast rule against the practice, deferring the decision instead to their local school boards. Still others may even reserve the right to schedule state playoff games on Sunday should weather-related postponements begin to pile up.
Perhaps no other event is more weather-sensitive than the annual Bull Run Invitational at Hereford High School. Over the years it has been subjected to virtually the full meteorological spectrum, from oppressive heat to torrential rain. Since it can attract over 100 schools, the logistics dictate that it be held on a weekend. It is also very difficult to reschedule when weekend calendars are already booked with commitments for other races throughout September and October. In late September of 2003, Hurricane Isabel struck the mid-Atlantic region, rendering the course unusable and sending the meet’s organizers into a frantic search for an alternative date.
“People had commitments for two weeks on,” says Hereford assistant coach John Roemer, who serves as the meet’s co-director along with athletic director Mike Kalisz. “We lost sixty teams. Kids were sliding down The Dip during the first race and I get a call on the walkie talkie, ‘We can’t do this.’ I was down at the starting line for the beginning of the next race and there were about three teams instead of the thirty or so that were scheduled. The coaches had essentially made the decision for us.”
Fall is problematic for re-scheduling cross country invitationals since the season is about as short as Kim Kardashian’s marriage. Schools typically begin their seasons on Labor Day weekend and generally wrap up their regular-season schedules by mid-October. There is also the matter of SAT testing and religious holidays such as Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, days on which some school districts do not allow their teams to practice or compete. Bull Run was eventually re-scheduled for October 4, two weeks after the originally scheduled date. Twenty new teams signed up, which made the net loss for the event around 40.
“You’re already hemmed in by religious holidays, plus the SAT and the ACT,” says Roemer. “We’ve found that the best way was to re-schedule out two weeks. But I hate to do that because then you cause problems with competing meets.”
For the most part, the Maryland state championships have gone off as scheduled and on time. But should Mother Nature not cooperate, such as in 2003 and 2008, when torrential rains drenched much of the state, re-scheduling could be an administrative problem since, like Bull Run, the meet’s sheer size practically precludes it from being scheduled on any day but a Saturday.
“Weather is all-important,” says River Hill coach Earl Lauer. “If you don’t have it that day, you certainly can’t do it on a Monday. It’s a huge event. There’s no other sport that I can think of that has all teams, both boys and girls, in one place on one day.”
Indoor track probably comes closest, although the state championships are held in a two-day, two-session format. But regular season meets can present their own challenges simply due to the limited number of facilities. The Prince George’s Sports and Learning Center in Landover is the most desirable and centrally-located, but the costs can be prohibitive. The Baltimore Armory isn’t the most user friendly and parking is extremely limited, while Hagerstown Community College and the Snow Hill Rec Center in Worcester County aren’t geographically feasible for all schools. And there’s also the matter of recreation leagues, which also book the same facilities for their own programs.
As athletic director of Hagerstown Community College, Robert “Bo” Myers is responsible for an athletic facility that is as much in demand as a barrel of crude oil. In addition to his own school’s men’s and women’s basketball and indoor track teams, Hagerstown also plays host to a number of high school track meets during the winter, as well as to local recreation leagues which use the facility for basketball. As long as the weather cooperates, things can move along smoothly. But when the weather turns bad, the college, high school and recreation league schedules overlap even more.
“Tuesday through Saturday morning, I can’t schedule anything,” he says. “I can’t schedule anything Tuesday and Thursday evenings or Saturday before noon. They also get Sunday afternoon from one until four for their activities. If I have a snow-out on Monday, I can’t go to Tuesday because they get time.”
With facilities in high demand and schedules as tight as they are, it would seem as if there would be a groundswell of support for having the seventh day as a Plan B. Sunday would seem to be a natural life preserver when high schools need to rescue schedules that are foundering in the floodwaters. Except that it isn’t, at least not in Maryland at the present time.
“There’s a lot of thought out there that school personnel work five and six days per week and they really don’t want that day,” says MPSSAA associate director Andy Warner. “About five years ago, when we sent out our strategic plan, the topic was on there and there wasn’t a lot of support for it.”
The lack of support for Sunday play is understandable in one respect. High school coaches are, for the most part, teachers who put in long hours at their primary jobs before ever picking up a clipboard or a stopwatch. Asking them to work on a Sunday could reduce their personal time from very little to virtually zero.
“There are a lot of different sides to it,” says CM Wright coach Don Mickey, who has served concurrently on the state cross country as well as the indoor and outdoor track committees. “How much does a coach have to give, or a kid? Myself, I like that one-day break where I don’t have to do anything.
Would it be nice to have the option? Probably. Would it cause more chaos? Probably.”
If such a measure were ever to be enacted, the benefits would clearly have to be weighed against the potential drawbacks. While no one is suggesting that the MPSSAA or the respective school districts should mandate Sunday play, would even making the day available open the door to potential abuses? Would a team or individual be compelled to participate on a Sunday if it were so scheduled? Would sacrificing an occasional day of rest on Sunday be worth the price if it resulted in, say, less class time missed by the athletes?
Typically when schools have to travel for games or meets, the student-athletes are dismissed from school early. This is a practice that school administrators oftentimes grit their teeth and tolerate. The further a team has to travel, the earlier the dismissal time. Cross country regionals, for example, are typically held on a Thursday afternoon beginning around 3 pm. For a school placed in a region that isn’t geographically-friendly, a good portion of the school day is often missed.
“When we (Thomas Johnson) ran the 4A North Regional at Dulaney, we left school around 1 pm, which our principal didn’t particularly like,” says Snyder. “It certainly didn’t gain us any favor in her eyes.”
Another school in such a situation is Stephen Decatur. Located in Berlin, MD, in Worcester County, it’s centrally located only if you happen to be standing in the center of, well, Stephen Decatur. Currently situated in the Class 3A East region with predominantly Howard County schools, the Seahawks are usually consigned to long bus trips for both regional and state competition, particularly in cross country. And, as Robert Louis Stevenson once observed, it is better to travel hopefully than to arrive.
“Once, when we drove up to Hereford for Bull Run, we didn’t find out it was cancelled until we got there,” says Stephen Decatur coach Pat Russo. “We wound up with a 320-mile journey and no competition.”
Other states such as New York, which permit the use of Sundays, do so at least in part to address the issue of missed school time. The NYSPHSAA also reserves the authority to schedule its postseason competitions on Sunday should the need arise. And in an association that counts some 800 schools as members, the need does occasionally arise.
“There had been a concern from some school superintendents about kids missing school time,” says NYSPHSAA executive director Nina van Erk. “We attempt not to schedule anything (on Sunday) before 12 noon. It’s more of a family-based decision than religious. If we tried to accommodate every religion, we wouldn’t have enough days.”
Other states such as California, which unlike Maryland, includes parochial schools among its membership, deal with the touchy religion issue in a different manner. There, parochial schools which observe the Sabbath from sundown Friday to sundown Saturday must register each school year by Aug. 1 and indicate either Friday or Saturday as an alternate day of respite. Kentucky, which also has private school members, allows its local school districts to determine whether or not to permit Sunday play.
“You’d probably get a lot of different opinions from different districts,” says KHSAA assistant commissioner Mike Barren. “The district I coached in, we weren’t even allowed to practice on Sunday. For other school systems, it’s pretty much wide open. Our parochial schools, for example, play a lot of their jayvee games on Sunday.”
Kentucky also has what’s known as prime date scheduling. Pertaining only to basketball, prime date scheduling was implemented by the KHSAA as a Title IX initiative. What the ruling does is mandate that member schools schedule at least 40 percent of their girls home basketball games on Friday night, Saturday or Sunday. A school may also comply by scheduling 40 percent of the entire girls basketball schedule on one of these three days.
“We have a lot of sports, particularly tournaments, that will pour over into Sundays,” says Barren. “Our state tournaments have run over into Sundays due to rain or other types of bad weather.”
Just to the south in Tennessee, Sunday play is also left to the discretion of the local school districts. The TSSAA approach is largely laissez-faire, with no specific rules mandating which days schools may play or practice.
“We don’t get into the number of hours or what days of the week they can practice,” says TSAA assistant executive director Richard McWhirter. “The school district I was in, the principal had to approve it and basically had to know what the coach was planning on doing.”
Tennessee may also schedule Sunday contests at the state level, although it’s a practice they largely try to stay away from.
“We don’t say we’re going to do it, and we try to avoid it as much as possible,” says McWhirter. “We really haven’t run into much of that at the state level.”
In parts of the country where winter weather can turn dicey in a hurry, Sunday play is a reality perhaps grounded in realism. For example, of the nine states which comprise the Northeastern United States, only northernmost Maine, which does allow Sunday practices if the local school boards so choose, does not permit Sunday play. Many of them also reserve the right to schedule Sunday makeups for state tournament play should the need arise.
“Up here, with the weather the way it is, even the school districts that don’t endorse Sunday play will sometimes hold it in reserve should the need arise,” says New Hampshire Interscholastic Athletic Association executive director Patrick Corbin.
In his 45 years as a coach and an administrator at both the county and state level, Ron Belinko has certainly seen his share of best-laid plans going awry due to inclement weather. And his 11-year tenure as director of the Maryland state wrestling tournament has the distinction of being perhaps the only Sunday competition held at the high school level in Maryland. It also wasn’t an experience he was likely to ever want to repeat.
“One year the state wrestling tournament was snowed out, so we tried to get permission to move it to Sunday,” says Belinko, who retired as Baltimore County athletic director at the end of last season, but still serves the same office in a consulting capacity. “The (MPSSAA) executive director, John Molesworth, wasn’t available, so we went to the deputy director to get permission. We went ahead and did it and that Monday, all hell broke loose.”
Just to the south in Virginia, Sunday play is largely prohibited, although the Virginia High School League (VHSL) does permit exceptions for state tournament play, as well as individual and team competitions if certain conditions are met. And in October of 2002, all hell did break loose in Maryland, the District of Columbia and Northern Virginia.
“There have been some times, particularly during the Beltway Sniper issue, where we might have allowed some Sunday games,” says VHSL deputy director Tom Zimorski. “But I’m not aware of any movement of that sort in that direction, at least not in the last couple of years.”
If such an amendment were ever made to MPSSAA bylaws, safeguards would likely have to be put in place to try and prevent potential abuses. Pennsylvania, for example, does not prohibit Sunday play, but it does follow a six-day rule, meaning that PIAA member schools may not play or practice more than six times in any calendar week. Many other state athletic associations have similar rules within their bylaws. Maryland’s current prohibition of Sunday participation acts as a de facto six-day rule.
“That’d be something you’d almost have to have because otherwise, you’d have coaches out there killing their kids,” says Snyder.
Belinko sees optional Sunday play as a potential Pandora’s Box that will could ultimately lead to further demands being placed on athletes, such as out-of-season practices, increased contact during the summer, and finally, mandatory play on Sunday. Making Sunday play mandatory could lead to problems in more team-oriented sports such as cross country, but less likely in track, where athletes largely compete on an individual basis. And in some sports, there’s also the issue of club teams, which play a large portion of their schedules on Sundays. An athlete looking at a Sunday makeup high school game versus a club game would be put into the awkward position of making a choice that isn’t likely to be popular with one of his or her coaches.
“Makeup time would be a first step,” he says. “Coaches already want more contact with the kids, but somewhere along the way you have to draw the line.”
In some instances, safeguards are already in place. Washington State, for example, permits Sunday play if prior permission is obtained, but its bylaws also contain a provision stating that no penalty or forfeiture may be imposed on a school that cannot or will not play on Sunday. In Alaska, whose two seasons consist of winter and the Fourth of July, a waiver may be obtained to re-schedule a game for Sunday that initially had to be postponed due to inclement weather or transportation failure.
Other conditions would have to be considered as well. Transportation costs, for example, can be higher on weekends, largely due to the additional costs of paying drivers. But county buses are usually available on weekends since they aren’t picking up and dropping off students. During the week, if county buses can’t be used, schools have to use the more expensive charter buses. According to Belinko, the cost of charters in Baltimore County is double that of the County fleet. But finding enough drivers willing to sacrifice a part of their weekend isn’t always easy.
“We encourage schools to use County buses whenever possible,” he says. “And there are drivers who don’t mind doing it and like that weekend pay, but there are still others who aren’t looking for that overtime.”
Like all state athletic associations, the MPSSAA places strict limits on the amount of contests member schools may schedule in any one week. For cross country and track, no more than two are permitted in any one week (a week currently defined as Monday, 12 am to Saturday, 11:59 pm). But MPSSAA rules also allow for one postponed event to be rescheduled in addition to the maximum number of contests allowed in any one week, as per its operational guidelines. So if meets such as Bull Run, the Montgomery Indoor Invitational or the Pikesville Outdoor Invitational, all of which attract a large number of schools and are all scheduled for Saturdays, had to push their start times back 24 hours to Sunday, they could, at least in one respect, do so without fear of schools running afoul of MPSSAA guidelines.
Or as is the case with New Jersey, any Saturday contest rescheduled for Sunday counts toward the week in which it was originally scheduled. Either method keeps schools in compliance when trying to reschedule due to inclement weather. And it might allow the people who assume the Herculean responsibilities of putting on these events on an annual basis to breathe a little easier.
“I hadn’t really thought about it,” says Hereford’s Roemer, “My reflex action is that it would be great. You could just batten down the hatches for 24 hours and pick it up from there.”
“I can see where it would be nice to have that flexibility,” adds Stephen Decatur’s Russo, who schedules several indoor invitationals each year at the Snow Hill Recreation Center. “I think it could be made available, although some areas would probably never use it. And I can also see where there might be some resistance, particularly from parents.”
Parental resistance aside, Mars may be colonized before enough coaches and administrators warm to the idea of a Sunday option. As of now, the winds of change appear to be light and variable at best.
“If we’d have had to postpone the state (cross country meet), what I think would have happened is that it would have been the next week on Tuesday and Wednesday,” says River Hill’s Lauer. “Get the notices out by Monday, and then run four races on Tuesday and four more on Wednesday. There are ways to make accommodations and I don’t think Sunday is one of them.”
|Last Updated ( Sunday, 11 March 2012 17:47 )|