ALBANY, N.Y. (AP) - Here's a new play call courtesy of the recession: shorter seasons for high school athletes.
The group that oversees public high school athletics in New York state recently approved shaved-down schedules next school year as a cost-cutting measure, the latest to take the step nationwide.
Cuts vary by sport in New York: Baseball teams that play 24 regular-season games will go to 20, football teams will go from 10 games to 9 or 8, depending on regional officials.
The New York State Public High School Athletic Association says the shorter schedules allow schools to cut budgets without cutting programs. Critics - including coaches and kids - claim the new policy unfairly targets student athletes.
"Pick up your gear after eight? That's terrible," said Clarence High School varsity football coach Tom Goddard. "That's a terrible thing to do to the kids."
Trimming games to save money is not a new idea. A school district outside Cleveland on Monday was to discuss dropping all sports. Oklahoma schools shortened seasons early in this decade to save money.
Mississippi last year voted to cut schedules by 10 percent - except for the beloved moneymaker, football. Schools in Idaho are considering a reduction, though officials there noted there is some opposition. And while a season-reducing proposal was rejected in Maine last month, officials set rules that will result in fewer teams qualifying for playoffs.
New York athletic officials say incremental cuts to all programs will save sports with fewer participants, like gymnastics and bowling, from the budget knife, as well as modified sports programs for seventh- and eighth-graders.
The measure passed by a majority vote in the last weekend of January. By hitting every sport - boys and girls - the cuts also avoid violating any provisions of the 1972 federal Title IX law to prevent discrimination in education spending based on gender.
"Losing one game in a basketball season when you're playing 18 or 20 games, that's not the end of the world," said Pat Pizzarelli, the president of the association. "And if you do that across the board, you're going to get some savings. But if you don't do that, you can lose an entire sport."
The cost savings might seem small - a referee here, a bus trip there - but they add up. A high school umpire in New York averages $83 a game, without travel reimbursement, said association executive director Nina Van Erk. Schools need two umpires a game, so two fewer home games saves a district $332.
Van Erk estimates that schools statewide will save more than $3 million in officiating costs alone. Add to that bus trips, chaperones and scorekeepers and the savings approach $10 million among 776 schools statewide, she said.
Some parents support the restrained, universal cuts rather than the more drastic option of wiping out whole teams.
"I'd hate to see any sport eliminated. I think it's a better answer," said Pete Cure, who has two daughters and a son playing sports for Guilderland High School near Albany.
Critics concede the economy is tough, but they focus on the policy's cost to kids - even it's a few basketball games.
"Those two or three games are for us as a team to build team chemistry, and to figure out what's going to work and what's not going to work" said Will Reutemann, a senior on the La Salle Institute basketball team in Troy, N.Y.
Susan Garrigan-Piela, president of the Columbia Football Booster Club near Albany, complained that students in New York already play fewer games than their counterparts in states like Texas. And she is concerned about cuts to programs that allow students to fill their time productively.
"A lot of people say sports aren't needed," she said, "but the real fact is, what are you going to do with all those kids with nothing to do?"
Gary VanDerzee, football coach for Ravena-Coeymans-Selkirk High School near Albany, said the association failed to exhaust every option before turning some Friday night lights out. He said instead of "putting budgetary problems on the backs of the kids," schools could defer purchases of uniforms, balls and other equipment.
"I was disappointed because it's less games we get to play," said Ravena sophomore Andrew Brozowski, who will play varsity for VanDerzee next year. "And all the seniors, I was thinking, they always want to play another game, and now they have less chance to play."
VanDerzee said schools in the area could vote to set longer seasons locally. However, it's possible those teams could be declared ineligible if they play more than the state maximum.
VanDerzee said the move will put New York athletes at disadvantage when it comes to college recruiting, because students in other states will have played more games over their high school careers.
Shorter season proponents stress the action is for two years. If economic indicators rise in that time, so could the number of high school games.
"No one wants to cut anything," Pizzarelli said. "You never want to have kids play one less game, it's always one more."
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