Saturday, May 26, 2018

Divided We Fall.... A Modest Proposal for Private and Public Schools in the A.H.S.A.A.

I read today that St. Paul is suing the Alabama High School Athletic Association because of the Association's newly minted “competitive balance” policy--an attempt to keep a fragile coalition of public and private schools in the same athletic league. Private schools which have been successful in certain sports over a three year period are moved up a classification to play larger schools. This is in addition to a 1.35 multiplier that was instituted for private schools in 1999, already bumping them up one classification. So St. Paul, 4A in size without the additional penalties, will be playing at the 6A level in 15 sports next year, including football.

The lawsuit in a federal court alleges the “competitive balance” rule is “motivated by a bare desire to harm and disadvantage a politically unpopular group” and that playing up two divisions puts their athletes in harm's way.

I have no idea if the lawsuit will be successful. But if it is, the A.H.S.A.A. will be under tremendous pressure to remodel itself after the state of Tennessee, which years ago separated the public and private schools into two distinct leagues, each competing for its own championship. I think that would be a dreadful mistake for Alabama.

I’ve been a Catholic school principal for 29 years in three high schools, two in Alabama (Montgomery Catholic High from 1989-2008 and St. Michael Catholic High, 2015-present) and one in Tennessee (Pope John Paul in Nashville, TN, from 2008-2015) . Being a “private school” principal in both states gives me some perspective.

During my tenure at Catholic, we played at the 2A and 3A level against many wonderful, rural public schools, such as Holtville, Reeltown and Elmore County. There were times they womped us, and at other times, we competed and beat them. But over the years, with them hosting us and us hosting them, we grew in mutual respect for each other. I remember one particular Friday night when we visited Holtville (in Slapout!) for a basketball game. The people there were warm and gracious hosts, happy to receive us, representing the best in southern hospitality. The whole town was there, cheering on their boys, led at that time by the Ezell brothers. They killed us that night, but that wasn’t my biggest takeaway. I remembered how run down their school building was, and how that contrasted so powerfully with the pride and joy that community had in their school. Because of that experience, I voted for property tax increases for public schools the next time it was on the ballot.

Contrast that with my time in Tennessee, which separated private and public schools twenty years ago. My school, John Paul II,  competed at the “Division II, 2A” level, which was the “large private school” division. Our regular opponents were Baylor, McCallie, Brentwood Academy, Ensworth, MBA and the like.  They each charge well over $20,000 year for tuition, and their facilities are breathtakingly beautiful (see pictures below). During my seven year stint as headmaster of JPII, traveling to support our teams, I never had to walk into a Holtville, never had to “compare/contrast” our facilities with those who had less. Neither did our parents. We moved in entirely different circles.

Baylor School, Chattanooga

Give the civil rights heroes in our great state their due. Credit the Christian Churches for their role. But I believe the institution that has done more to advance the cause of civil rights and the normalization of black-white, rich-poor relationships in Alabama is the Alabama High School Athletic Association. It connects communities that otherwise simply wouldn’t be connected. It humanizes relationships that would otherwise be faceless abstractions.

New natatorium, Ensworth HS (Nashville)
If we divorce ourselves from each other, it will be a great step backwards for our state.

Still, I am sympathetic to the “political” problem confronting the AHSAA—namely, that a majority of its members believe that the private schools cheat, by offering scholarships to athletes to enroll in their school. I don’t want to debate that point, except to say that successful programs generally attract good athletes to join them, be that at St. Paul, Madison Academy, Hoover or Mountainbrook.

The dining hall, Montgomery Bell Academy (Nashville)

Here’s what I’d suggest instead: If indeed, programs “recruit” athletes and then offer them financial aid as inducements, then the percentages of athletes on financial aid would be greatly disproportionate to the general school population. On eligibility rosters submitted to the AHSAA for each team and signed by principals, then, the AHSAA could simply ask the principal to declare what percentage of that team was on financial aid, and what percentage of the student body was on financial aid. Those two percentages should not, on average,  vary wildly. If they did over a couple of year period (to allow for statistical anomalies) that could become a “trigger” for the AHSAA to investigate the program more closely or to penalize that school for continued incongruities in its financial aid practices.

I don’t think the AHSAA wants to penalize schools for giving aid, as that policy harms needy families, discriminating in favor of the wealthy, who don’t need it. But it’s perfectly reasonable for the AHSAA to expect that its schools treat athletes as they would the rest of their student body.

Sunday, April 29, 2018

Moms and Saints

May is upon us. Traditionally, May is  a month where the Catholic Church honors Mary. It’s also the month of Mother’s Day (May 13—don’t forget). I'd like to talk about both this morning. 

He was our school’s best athlete in my previous school--our starting tailback in football and point guard in basketball. He was a guy’s guy—tough, gritty, not prone to emotion. The occasion was senior night in basketball, where we introduce players with their parents, and they walk out to half court together. His mother had a stroke a week earlier, and probably shouldn’t have been there but she wasn’t about to be at home when her son was playing his last home game.

When they called out her name, his mother, sitting in the bleachers of the first row, tried to stand, wobbled, and sat down. She couldn't stand up, much less walk to half-court. The boy, without missing a beat, walked over to his mother, helped her to her feet, and stood there with her, arm and arm with her,  beaming proudly.   The tenderness by which he treated his mother was a direct contrast to the way he presented himself to others, and all the students noticed it. There were even some tears welling up in the crowd. 

But it was, after all, his mom. Mothers are special. Just look at any college football game when the TV cameras roam the sidelines. Whenever they do a close-up of a player, it’s not “Hey Dad” or “Hey Coach” from high school, but “Hey Mom” or “Hey Mom, love you”.

All of this helps us understand why Catholics seem to talk about Mary so much. We have songs about her. Prayers. Feast Days. The rosary. Why all this fuss about Mary? We call Mary “first among the saints” for a simple reason: she was Jesus’ mom, and that puts her in a privileged place in our faith, just as Moms are held in a privileged place in our families and in our society. 

And why do Catholics pay so much attention to dead people, even if that dead person was Jesus’ mom? For the same reason that we have pictures of our relatives in our homes and in our offices—so that we can be inspired by their example and can be reminded that we are called to live as they lived. There’s a picture of my grandfather in my office. My wife teases me because it’s much bigger than the picture of her. But there’s a reason he’s so prominently displayed. It wasn’t because he was a professor of orthodontics at the University of TN, or chair of that department for 37 years, or that he won 2 international awards in his field that only one other person in his profession has done. It was because every Friday, for 37 years, he went out to lunch with his graduate students, thus building a personal relationship with them. His picture reminds me of the kind of leader I want to be at St. Michael—not just a head of school, but one that gets to know the students personally—it’s the reason I teach a class and have done so for most of the 29 years I’ve been either president or principal. 

We celebrate the saints, and this month Mary, as first among the saints, because they remind us that a Christian life is not only possible, but it’s been done already. And that ought to inspire us to believe we can live that kind of life, too. 

In 1954 track’s greatest record was broken. It was such a tremendous human achievement that it didn’t just make the sports headlines; it made front page headlines all over the world. It was thought to have been humanly impossible—that if someone pushed himself that hard, his lungs would collapse. (Does anyone know what it was?) Roger Bannister, an English long distance runner, broke the 4 minute mile. It had never been done before, was thought to be impossible, and as a result, no-one ever did it. But that same summer, the world record had been broken 3 more times, and within 3 years, over 16 different runners had broken that barrier. Today the world record is 3 minutes, 43 seconds, a full 17 seconds off that once unthinkable barrier.

What happened? It’s pretty clear: Once folks saw that a 4 minute mile was possible, it empowered others to run that barrier, too.

All that happened to Mary in her life was the result of a simple prayer. When the angel Gabriel announced she was to bear a son who shall become Emmanuel, savior, she said only “Be it done unto me according to your word”. 

Let that simple prayer, and her faithfulness to that prayer, be an inspiration to all of us to live according to his word, his will. What she has done, we can also do. May we have the courage to say yes as she did. Amen.

Bad joke: I'm only friends with 25 letters of the alphabet. I don't know Y.