Wednesday, May 11, 2011

City League to WPIAL? Not right now.

     The latest report from the committee tasked with the job of overhauling the Pittsburgh City League was revealed to the public last night.   The Post Gazette and Tribune Review articles noted that due to financial constraints brought on by the declining tax revenues as well as the recent cuts to the education budget by Gov. Tom "Hacksaw" Corbett,  the plan for the City League to dissolve and join the WPIAL as early as the 2012-13 school year has been put on hold.  Or more precisely, the category of "explore when financially/operationally feasible", as the PG article puts it.  One wonders whether this is a more pleasant way of saying 'Let's starve it in the corner and hope it dies from neglect.'
      Those of you in the throbbing masses that read this blog know that I, for one, have supported the drive to dissolve the City League and merge with the WPIAL, all the while maintaining some semblance of the League's traditions by the creation of pre-and/or post season tournaments that will crown a City Champion as well as allowing city teams to also compete in the WPIAL playoffs.  This City Championship would not be an official title recognized by the PIAA, but would carry bragging rights amongst the City schools.  Which, considering the lack of success the City Champion usually happens in the PIAA playoffs, is just as well.  The idea is to condense the City competition down to just a tournament rather than a full blown regular season.
      I believe that some of this can be done during the season much in the same way that the European Champions League soccer competition is carried out by having the various rounds of the tournament occur during the regular season.  While the teams are playing their regular season games during WPIAL competition, the games that would be normally counted as non conference would be used to play the various levels of the City League competition.   In the case of basketball, assuming that the current format of an eight-team single elimination is still used, the whole City tournament can be done in three non conference games interspersed throughout the regular season.  Doing it this way will also allow city coaches to schedule involvement in tip-off and holiday tournaments without sacrificing involvement in the city tournament.  Of course there is the problem of pre-tournament seeding, and making sure that everyone's open dates match up.  But all this is just smoke in the wind, if the City League and the WPIAL don't merge.
    Other items of the report that were mentioned included:  opening up the process by which City League coaches are hired;  appointing individual athletic directors for each school instead of having a centralized director; upgrading facilities and equipment;  improving female participation in interscholastic sports;  as well as connecting academic and athletics.
     In the category of coaching,  I wholeheartedly believe that it is time for the City League to open up coaching positions to the best available candidate, rather than give first dibs to district personnel, many of whom are already weighed down with their teaching obligations and have little time to devote to their coaching obligations.  There are many coaches who will take on the coach's position primarily for the extra stipend the job provides, which frankly isn't all that much.   One consideration that must be addressed is that by opening up the hiring process, might bring in coaches who may want more than the district is willing to pay.
     It is a well known fact that the City League suffers from a serious lack of quality coaches.  Opening up the coaching ranks to the best available candidate is the first step towards improving the image as well as the competitiveness of the City League within and without.  Better coaches will attract better athletes.  A good coach can bring people who want to have their son or daughter play for quality coaches.
     But in order to throw open the windows and let the bad air out and the good air in, there is the matter of requiring a change in the collective bargaining agreement with the teacher's union.  The Pittsburgh Public Schools have been lucky in that they have not had a teacher's strike since the 1975-76 school year.
    The Pittsburgh Federation of Teachers is a pretty powerful union, and any change in the collective bargaining agreement will be a sticky subject. I'm not sure that it's one that would cause teachers to take up picket signs.  But I have a feeling that any attempt by PPS teachers to walk out these days would be met with very stiff public resistance, and they would not be able to mount lengthy strikes like back in the 75-76 school year which lasted almost two months because of the legislation that limits the length of teachers strikes to only as long as allowable to insure that students get 180 days of instruction.   If it can be spun to the union that in the long run, changing the hiring practices of coaches will end up helping them in the end, they might be willing to go along.
     I believe it is also necessary that the district attempts to move forward with having each high school have a full-time athletic director, that is devoted to athletics and not encumbered by teaching duties.  Who better to know the problems of a specific schools athletic program than a person who works with the nuts and bolts of that program day in and day out?  What works at one school won't always work at another, and the centralized approach that is being implemented now is inefficient.   But the board has  determined that along with the merger to the WPIAL, the one AD per school idea is too expensive to put into place at this time.  So into the category of 'explore when financially and operationally feasible' corner goes that idea.
    Upgrading City League facilities is something that HAS to be done in order to give our athletes a fighting chance in the event the City League does merge with the WPIAL.  While Cupples Stadium is comparable to most of the stadia in the WPIAL in terms of seating capacity, the appearance of the stadium has been upgraded significantly over the last few years.  The locker rooms are very small, requiring football teams to arrive and depart the stadium partially dressed in their gear.
    The practice facilities city football teams train on have not been kept up.  Most of the fields do not comply with national high school regulations regarding length and width,  the playing surfaces are terrible,  and the seating areas are borderline unsafe.   City League coaches do not have the luxury of having state of the art equipment to view videotapes of game film.  Their practice equipment is old and worn out.  Among the recommendations made were to establish a minimum standard for athletic facilities through a self audit process, track spending of equipment funding, and to use the district's spending power to centralize negotiations, contracts and purchasing for athletic equipment.   One thing I noticed was that the City League does not purchase all its uniforms from a single vendor.   I would think that significant cost savings as well as consistency in quality control could be achieved if the City could go to Nike, Adidas, and Under Armour and say:  Hey, we've got eight high schools, some five thousand athletes playing a dozen sports, and we'd like you to bid on outfitting them.  But that is a big-ticket item and will most likely not be implemented under the current budget crunch.
     Increasing female participation in sports is a no-brainer.  Female high school athletes are less likely to drop out of school, they are less likely to get pregnant while in school, they get better grades, are more likely to be role models for the student body, and are more likely to go to college.  And also it's the law.
     In the area of connecting academics and athletics, the committee came up with some ideas I thought should have been done a long time ago.  An example:  creating a weekly report sent to coaches regarding a student athlete's attendance, GPA, PSAT and SAT results.    You're kidding right?  This is not currently being implemented?   Academic study halls and tutoring?  Come on, this is basic stuff.
     But the one program I have a problem with is allowing students with a 1.5-1.99 GPA to participate in sports as long as they complete an athletic intervention program.  Currently the Pgh Public Schools require students to maintain a 2.0 grade point average to play sports.  That's higher than the requirements laid down by the PIAA.  The athletic intervention program requires parental consent and requires mandatory attendance and academic progress.  Failure to comply results in immediate ineligibility.  That sounds nice, but I've always believed that playing sports should be a privilege. If you want to play sports, earn the privilege in the classroom.   Honestly, how hard can it be to maintain a 'C' average in school?  If you come to class, at least try to put forth an honest effort in learning the material and passing the tests, more often than not, you'll get a 'C' if only because the teachers will give you the benefit of the doubt.
     Some of what the board has recommended can be done with a minimum of dollars,  some will have to wait until money is freed up from somewhere.  Alternative funding sources have to be found because truthfully, beyond a miraculous increase in the city's population by a order of ten, the district will never be flush enoug with cash to do all the blue-sky projects that it wants to do.   And this little piece of mine doesn't go into all the stuff the report covers.  I just wanted to put my two cents in.  For what it's worth.