McDonogh has become the fourth Maryland Interscholastic Athletic Association A Conference football team to drop St. Frances from its 2018 schedule.
Co-athletic directors Mickey Deegan and Matt MacMullan sent a letter to “McDonogh Football Families” Monday night announcing their decision. They join officials at Mount Saint Joseph and Calvert Hall, who announced last week that they wouldn’t play the No. 1 Panthers, the two-time A Conference champions who were ranked No. 4 in USA Today’s Super 25 last season. Loyola Blakefield withdrew its football team from the MIAA in January.
“The safety and well-being of our student-athletes is our highest priority, and after careful consideration, our administrators and coaches believe this is the best decision for our players,” Deegan and MacMullan said in the letter.
The four schools all cited player safety concerns as the reason for dropping the Panthers from their schedules. But Dr. Curtis Turner, principal at St. Frances since 2008, told The Baltimore Sun last week that he believes the decision by MIAA rivals to not play the predominantly African-American school is racially motivated. “Absolutely, and I’m not going to shy away from it,” Turner said. “No one wants to talk about it directly. We’re the oldest Catholic school in the Archdiocese of Baltimore, and the only difference between us and the other Catholic schools is the social-economic demographic.”
Brother John Kane, president of Calvert Hall, responded in a statement Friday that the decision to not play St. Frances was “solely made in the interests of the safety of our students. To suggest there is any other motivation is to ignore the fundamental principles of our common Catholic faith and the values for which Calvert Hall has stood for and practiced for over 173 years.”
Earlier Monday, St. Frances athletic director Nick Myles and football co-coach Henry Russell appeared on 105.7 The Fan to dispute safety concerns, contending that some of co-coach Biff Poggi’s teams in his 19 years at Gilman were more dominant against MIAA foes.
The worst injury Myles said he has seen in any St. Frances football game happened to a Panthers player. Tyree Henry suffered a traumatic spinal-cord injury in a game against Gilman on Oct. 7, 2016, after he took an unintentional helmet-to-helmet hit. He was hospitalized for six weeks and had to learn to walk again. He returned to school after a semester and graduated this weekend.
“Other than that, it’s been normal football,” Myles said on the show. “Football, it’s a violent sport, so you know kids get injured. We get kids that get injured. Other teams get kids that get injured. But it’s no different from any kid that’s playing football anywhere else. It hasn’t been documented that if you play St. Frances you’re going to get more injuries than normal.”
In last year’s McDonogh-St. Frances regular-season meeting, two Eagles suffered broken bones and another had a stress fracture exacerbated during the game. Former McDonogh coach Dom Damico, who stepped down in April after 24 years leading the program, said the Panthers were just “bigger, stronger, faster, better.”
“It’s like a college team versus a high school team,” he went on to say after that 28-0 St. Frances win. “We’re not deep enough or strong enough to play them. That’s just a different breed of football. … They’re playing at the national level trying to win a national championship. We’re trying to make the playoffs in the A Conference. It’s a different approach, but they’re a great team.”
Russell, who coached for seven years at Gilman, said St. Frances’ dominance on the field this year is no different than Gilman’s before Poggi and most of his coaching staff moved to St. Frances two years ago. The Greyhounds won 13 championships during Poggi’s tenure.
“If nobody forfeited against Gilman for those 19 years, why all the sudden can you forfeit against St. Frances after year two? That’s my question,” Russell said on the show.
“Now, if there were other things out there maybe for St. Frances to explore, other leagues or playing an independent schedule that makes sense for our kids ... we definitely would look at that. Right now, we’re in the MIAA, we’ve been in the MIAA and we like what the MIAA does for kids across the board. That’s who we are.”
Officials of the other A Conference teams — Gilman and Archbishop Spalding — have said they will make their decisions after this week’s MIAA athletic directors conference, which runs through Wednesday. Myles said MIAA officials will consider possible rule changes, including transfer rules, but he said they have to apply to all MIAA sports, as they do now.
The large number of transfers into St. Frances’ football program was also pointed to in Mount Saint Joseph’s decision not to play the Panthers. MIAA officials have never cited the Panthers for having broken any transfer rules.
“Another elephant in the room is the reason why the rules are the same [for all MIAA sports] is because the MIAA’s main sport is lacrosse,” Myles said. “So if you change some major rules in football, it’s going to affect lacrosse, so there’s a lot of things that are not really talked about. People don’t think about that.”
Myles said that if MIAA officials change the transfer rule, St. Frances would comply.
“We want to participate in the MIAA and we’re going to follow whatever rules that the league, that everybody, is going to have to adhere to for all sports.”