We’re in the era when everything is a crisis, when everybody wants a say in fixing it, when we’re all seemingly obsessed with safety or the illusion of it, and yes, when everyone expects a trophy, or at least to be considered for one.
And so it is that we’ve stumbled into this continuous, almost laughable, state of flux for Maine high school football.
The number of programs participating in the sport, which contracted in the 1970s and early ’80s before exploding again in the ’90s, has tenuously leveled off in the give-or-take range of 80-or-so.
If that statement sounds inexact or insecure, well, welcome to a world that’s increasingly at war with football. Participation is down. Gridiron activities in some corners are disparaged on the same level as cow flatulence. Famous people, to whom for whatever reason we increasingly look for moral and practical guidance, have publicized that their kids will not be permitted to play the game.
Those of us who believe passionately in this consummate team sport and the lifelong lessons it conveys are understandably worried about its future. And by that we mean how it might look by the time our middle school students become high school seniors, never mind a generation or two down the road.
The Maine Principals’ Association has adopted a proactive stance in its quest to keep the game moving forward. It is a highly transparent process. Stakeholders meet more than once every offseason to take inventory, figure out where the sport is headed, and shape the upcoming season accordingly.
In theory and on paper, those actions are commendable. It’s certainly a far cry from where how the organization did its business, and thereby subjected itself to criticism, a couple of decades back.
Where this approach goes wrong is that it has reached the point where too many cooks are tinkering with the recipe.
A typical winter and early spring unfold in what is now familiar fashion. In addition to a review of the programs that were on shaky ground the previous year, others step forward and plead poverty, including some we might have even considered current powerhouses.
An initial meeting takes place. The MPA hears feedback and disseminates numbers and tentative lines of demarcation to member schools and the media.
There’s a review period, followed by a fair amount of push-back under the guise of concern for the game. A smattering of schools — invariably those that would be on the low end of enrollment classifications — sometimes go as far as to submit counter-proposals.
Then comes the revised list, followed by a shorter review period and a final etching in stone. Of course it’s a thankless process, sure to leave some sulking and others scratching their heads. This year’s projected realignment, however, is especially bizarre.
For starters, it’s a five-class system, if you count those who intend to slide into Maine’s first-ever eight-man football venture. Football has joined basketball in the ranks of MPA sanctioned sports with one too many classes.
A, B and C, plus an eight-man contingent that is almost certain to grow after people see how it actually looks, would be more than sufficient. But the fear mongers and safety and sportsmanship police have everyone so worried about perceived competitive balance killing the sport that the people in charge now err on the side of hugeness.
The real eye-opener about 2019 football is the assignment of only eight teams to the highest division. And the plot twist that’s making us all rub those eyes is one team that fell below the cut line: Portland, which has been a regular participant in recent Class A state finals.
That’s primarily because Portland is being allowed to deduct a slew of students — roughly 350 — from a satellite school that previously factored into its enrollment.
It begs the question why Oxford Hills, Lewiston and Edward Little aren’t receiving the same consideration.
Each of those schools have co-operative or alternative education programs that are measured into their overall numbers. Surely the case could be made that few if any of those kids play football.
We could weigh other statistical anomalies, while we’re at it. To wit: The strong, soccer-loyal Somali population that has made Lewiston one of the nation’s premier programs on the pitch. That demographic has made almost zero impact on the LHS football program over the years. Should the Blue Devils not have a strong case for joining the Bulldogs in Class B?
The solution to everything seems reasonably simple. Divorce emotion and special considerations from the process. Take the number of teams playing 11-man football, divide by three (or four, if you must), draw the lines and lock it in for two years at a time.
Put a cap on the outside influences and gerrymandering for a while. It isn’t really the MPA’s job to save football in individual communities. The onus should be on those towns and cities to drum up support at the grassroots level and get young people excited about the game, not to mention build the continuity and infrastructure that will allow them to succeed at the high school level.
Life isn’t fair. Not much is going to keep Thornton, Bonny Eagle and Scarborough from winning football games and championships, no matter what would-be rivals the sanctioning body puts in their path. Total enrollment is a small piece of it, but the long-term commitment they’ve put into building their programs the right way has constructed an overwhelming majority of that foundation.
Football isn’t dying on the vine in those locales, because they don’t mess around with what works.
The rest of us should be taking notes.
Kalle Oakes spent 27 years covering high school sports for the Sun Journal. He is now sports editor of the Georgetown (Kentucky) News-Graphic. Keep in touch with him by email at [email protected] or on Twitter @oaksie72.