The lessons of the St. Frances football fight

There are legitimate issues at stake in the question of whether some of the Baltimore region’s top private school athletic programs should continue to play football against St. Frances Academy, which is figuratively but not literally in a different league. But they are getting drowned out by accusations and recriminations among administrators, coaches and parents. Some from the schools that are refusing to play St. Frances are (intentionally or not) using language that’s loaded with racial baggage. Meanwhile, St. Frances’ coach has openly called representatives of those other schools who raised student safety concerns “cowards.” What are the students from St. Frances, Calvert Hall, Loyola Blakefield and Mount Saint Joseph learning from all this?

We see both sides of this debate, and we don’t think we’ll get anywhere until everyone directly involved does, too.

Not long ago St. Frances was a laughing stock of the league. But thanks to a deep-pocketed benefactor, the school has recruited and provided scholarships and in some cases housing for top football players from across the region, transforming itself into not just a dominant power in the Maryland Interscholastic Athletic Association but possibly the best high school team in the nation. It also happens to be a historically African-American Catholic school with roots back to the era of slavery, and one that typically serves students from much poorer families than is typical of elite Baltimore private schools.

We understand, then, why members of the St. Frances community are rubbed the wrong way when rival schools accuse them of not sharing the same “values” when they are simply doing the kind of recruiting — albeit more aggressively and on a broader scale — that the rest of the league has done for years. We also understand how descriptions of the intimidating size, strength and speed of St. Frances’ players — and particularly references to them as grown men playing against kids — taps into a long history of prejudiced and dehumanizing descriptions of black men and boys. We certainly hope that’s not the intent with which the words are spoken, but it is how they are being heard.

On the other side of the issue is some simple reality. The other MIAA A Conference teams are the elite of Maryland athletics by normal high school standards. They all feature excellent players, some of whom will go on to play football in college. But thanks to its recruitment, St. Frances has nothing but excellent players up and down its roster. Playing the Panthers, for the other teams in the league, is a bit like the difficult transition college standouts often face when they hit the NFL — every player there is as big, strong and talented as the best player they’d faced before. The difference is, the NFL rookie has a whole team of professionals to block for him. The other teams in the MIAA don’t.

It’s not just a question of whether the other teams will lose, it’s whether they even belong on the same field. Given what we’re learning about football, concussions and teens’ brain development, we should not discount some parents’ concerns that the mismatch is actually unsafe. This isn’t a question of being “tough” or, in St. Frances co-coach Henry Russell’s words, whether other teams “Make excuses for failure, use lies, and take their ball and go home.” It’s a question of risking permanent brain damage.

Setting aside the emotions and heated rhetoric, the MIAA needs to find a better way to handle situations like this one. The other teams should have raised this issue months ago, when it would have been easier for St. Frances to put together an independent schedule, and they should have done so openly and in consultation with St. Frances. Going forward, the league needs a mechanism for teams that aren’t facing any real competition among their normal peers in a particular sport to change their status from one year to the next. It’s not like this kind of situation has never come up before — the McDonogh girls’ lacrosse team, before its recent loss to Notre Dame Prep, had a level of dominance St. Frances can only dream of, as have a number of other teams over the years, such as Dunbar boys’ basketball team of the early ‘80s. St. Frances officials have said they believed MIAA rules prohibited such a move for its football team; the association needs to use its annual retreat next week to fix that.

Above all, the adults involved in this fight need to remember that how they handle this matter is going to be a lesson the students at St. Frances, Calvert Hall, Loyola Blakefield, Mount Saint Joseph and all the other schools in the league carry with them for the rest of their lives. Football is supposed to build character and discipline. The parents, coaches and administrators need to make sure they’re displaying both.

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