When football teams refuse to play an inner-city powerhouse like St. Frances, is it safety, or bias?

Joshua Miller should be basking in the glow of a sweet moment: He has just graduated from St. Frances Academy, where he played on the football team that went undefeated last fall and won its second straight conference championship.

Instead, Miller finds himself having to defend rather than simply celebrate his Panthers squad, which after struggling in its early years is now ranked as one of country’s best high school football teams.

That national success has had local consequences: Five schools in its conference have dropped the Panthers from their schedules this fall. Three have cited concerns for their players’ safety against St. Frances’ bigger, stronger and more skilled athletes.

Many see more than safety behind the late cancellations. Unlike the rest of the Maryland Interscholastic Athletic Association A Conference, whose members include the tony and mostly white private schools Gilman, McDonogh and Loyola Blakefield, St. Frances is a historically black school that, for 190 years, has held to a mission of educating poor, urban, minority students.

“We’re the Goliath and not the David anymore,” Miller said. “Now that it’s our time to shine, out of nowhere, there’s this huge issue.”

But what that issue is remains a point of contention.

Some see racism as motivating or at least contributing to the refusal to play St. Frances. Others say player safety is the sole concern — particularly now, when there is growing alarm over the lasting damage of concussions and repeated hits to the head.

Clearly, St. Frances has dominated the conference — the Panthers outscored their opponents last fall 532-69. Teams have said that St. Frances’ goal of recruiting and developing a nationally competitive team has put it on a different level from its conference competitors.

And yet, the shadow that race inevitably casts over the dispute has made for painful discussions — discussions that don’t always align neatly on either side of the black-white divide.

The MIAA A schools, while historically white, have grown more diverse over the years. Being accused of racism so insulted Brother John Kane, the president of Calvert Hall, that he issued a statement denouncing the “ugly … wrong and unfounded” allegation and vowing that the school would not remain “silently in response.”

For sports sociologist Harry Edwards, the conflict raises unanswerable and thus persistent questions, such as: what if St. Frances were an all-white team?

“The what-ifs are the most difficult questions to answer,” said Edwards, professor emeritus at the University of California, Berkeley. “So the question looms.”

Now educators on both sides are trying to calm the debate.

After the first schools dropped the Panthers last month, St. Frances Principal Curtis Turner said racism “absolutely” was behind their decisions. More recently, school officials have walked back or at least toned down such statements.

Biff Poggi, the coach who elevated the St. Frances football team to its current heights — after creating a powerhouse at Gilman — said he believes the other schools were sincerely concerned about safety, not race.

“It would be very hard for me to believe that,” he said. “I would be incredibly, incredibly disappointed if race was an issue in this.”

But Poggi also said that racism and its toll on his players can’t be dismissed.

“It’s such a volatile issue in our society today,” he said. “I thought I knew something about the issue of discrimination based on race until I came to St. Frances. The systemic racism we see every day heaped on our kids — whether it’s nutrition, whether it’s violence, whether it’s education, whether it’s PTSD from violence, whatever it is — is staggering,”

After two weeks of charges and counter-charges, signs of reconciliation are now emerging. St. Frances and Calvert Hall, both Catholic schools, issued a joint statement Wednesday expressing mutual respect and shared faith — plus a desire to continue competing against each other in other sports.

And through it all, the players themselves have said: just let us play.

Wyatt Cook was an outside linebacker on McDonogh’s undefeated 2013 football team, and helped coach his alma mater last season. He said competition is what drives the best players.

‘When I was there and we went undefeated, we played out-of-conference teams that were quite honestly pretty bad,” he said. “And then the next year, we begged coach Dom [Damico] to give us a harder schedule and he did.

“Did we win every game? Absolutely not, but I think we learned a lot more about football and life than we did just beating everybody by 40 points.”

The furor over St. Frances brings together two issues that are roiling football at every level of the game: race and safety.

The NFL last month banned players from kneeling during the national anthem, a gesture mostly by black players to protest racism and police brutality. President Donald Trump has stoked the controversy, most recently last week by disinviting the Super Bowl champion Philadelphia Eagles from the traditional White House visit, which most players were boycotting anyway.

Meanwhile, evidence is growing of the link between the concussions and repeated hits to the head routinely suffered by players at all levels of football and lasting, degenerative brain damage.

Safety concerns have contributed to the decline in the number of kids opting to play high school football.

Some say the fears of playing St. Frances mirror apprehensions about young black men off the football field.

“The statement made by so many cops when they shoot down unarmed black men is, ‘I feared for my life,’ ” Edwards said. “The notion of the big, animalistic black brute is built into the fabric of American culture. Sport reflects the society.”

Towson education professor Cole Reilly studies issues of race, class and gender.

“ ‘Safety’ is very coded,” he said. “What ideas are we conjuring when we suggest a team is unsafe to play?”

The schools that have dropped St. Frances deny that racial bias played a role in their decisions. Supporters note many of the players and coaches are black.

But Miller, who played offensive guard for St. Frances, questioned whether concerns for player safety were evenly spread. The most serious injury when he was playing was suffered not by an opponent but by his Panthers teammate Tyree Henry. A helmet-to-helmet hit in a game against Gilman in 2016, the year St. Frances won its first MIAA A title, left Henry with a traumatic spinal cord injury, six weeks in the hospital and extensive rehab to walk again.

Miller said the injury did not prompt the discussion of safety that’s happening now.

“Bones are bones,” he said. “We bleed like they bleed.

“When our player got paralyzed, there was no talk of, ‘Let’s dial down and show concern for SFA.’ ”

Miller said the whole experience has been “eye opening.”

“You try really hard to do well, and then when you do, this happens,” he said. “There comes a time when you have to open your eyes and realize there’s something a little deeper than football here.”

The controversy began last month, when first Mount St. Joseph and then Calvert Hall said they would not play the Panthers this fall. They joined Loyola Blakefield, which withdrew its football team from the seven-team MIAA A conference in January, saying it was no longer competitive at that level.

Then McDonogh dropped St. Frances, citing safety concerns, followed by Archbishop Spalding, which said the decision was based solely on “logistical reasons.”

That left Gilman. But before it announced its intentions, St. Frances announced it would play a national schedule.

At the center of all this is Poggi, who led Gilman to 13 conference titles in 19 seasons before moving to St. Frances last year.

There was no talk of dropping Gilman when it was running up similar margins against the rest of the conference.

Kaye Whitehead teaches communications and African & American Studies at Loyola University Maryland. Her two sons attend Gilman, but don’t play football for the prep school.

“When Gilman dominated, those same schools played,” she said. “None of them had a problem with Gilman’s dominance.

“Coach Poggi hasn’t changed. What’s changed? The students who play for him.”

Poggi, a hedge fund manager, bankrolled the Panthers football team prior to his taking over as coach last fall along with many of his Gilman assistants. He pays for dozens of scholarships at St. Frances, recruiting kids from both in and out of the area, most of whom otherwise wouldn’t be able to attend a private school or play at an elite level.

Sister John Francis Schilling, president emerita of St. Frances Academy, said she’s seen this kind of reaction before — when the school’s boys and girls basketball programs began achieving success.

“There’s so many examples of teams that were dominant for a certain period of time and nothing like this has ever happened,” she said. “So when you look at it, then you say, ‘What’s different about us?’

“There’s only one thing that stands out and that’s racism,” she said. “I hate to say it, but I can’t put any other reason on it. And we’ve only been dominant for two years. We haven’t even gotten to a dynasty stage.”

Schilling was instrumental in starting St. Frances’ football program. After struggling in its early years, it won back-to-back championships in the lower-tier MIAA C Conference in 2011 and 2012.

“The whole history of the football program when I started it 10 years ago, it was to keep boys engaged because they were being recruited for the gangs at the corner of Greenmount and Eager,” she said. “My idea was basketball’s fine, but you can only have 12 kids. With football, you can have as many as you want, and I felt like the boys needed that community sense.

“It was not about winning championships. … I just wanted them to be committed to something that would help them. If they ever got good enough to win a scholarship, great. But that was not the plan.”

Officials said the players have done well academically, some receiving college scholarships. Co-head coach Henry Russell said all 19 seniors on last fall’s roster graduated.

Several parents and supporters of the other schools declined to speak on the record. One told The Baltimore Sun that even refuting the accusation of racism keeps the accusation alive.

One woman, who said her son suffered a concussion in a game against St. Frances, said she did not believe racism was behind the decision but simply that the Panthers play at a different, and to her eyes, more dangerous level. The mother, who is African-American, said that her son’s school has many black players and coaches.

Cook, the McDonogh coach and former player, said he wished the other schools had not been so quick to react to St. Frances’ still-new success.

“I love McDonogh to death, but I’m just upset that they didn’t even give [St. Frances] a couple more years to see how it would play out, because they’ve only been this dominant for two years now,” he said. “I guess I’m just a little sad about that, because I know the kids [at McDonogh]. I coached them. They love football. They want to compete. Who else better to compete against than one of the best teams in the country?”

Cook said he doesn’t think St. Frances’ superiority caused the two broken bones McDonogh players sustained in last season’s 28-0 regular-season loss. Injuries just happen in football, he said.

And he doesn’t see racism, at least among the players.

“When I was playing at McDonogh, I’m pretty sure I was the only white kid on the defense at the time, so race has nothing to do with it, not at all,” he said. “It’s probably parents complaining that they’re too physical, they’re playing football too hard — which is how you’re supposed to play football.”

Former St. Frances quarterback Quantaye Battle said he and his teammates formed strong friendships with other players in the MIAA.

He also said he heard racial slurs and insults from the stands from the start. During his first game, he said, he heard spectators say “these black kids don’t belong in this conference.”

Battle, 23, was recruited from Edmondson-Westside High School to join the Panthers in 2013, its first year in the MIAA A Conference, by coaches who “promised I would be a better man and go to college for free.”

He said the experience changed his life. It was only after he graduated, with a scholarship to play at Virginia Union University, that St. Frances began its ascent — the Panthers were ranked No. 4 in USA Today’s Super 25 after their 13-0 season in 2017, and some local coaches expect them to reach the top spot in the country next season.

Dominant teams elsewhere in the country have had similar difficulty finding local opponents willing to risk a thrashing, on the scoreboard or on the field.

Archbishop Thomas Murphy High School in Everett, Wash., beat its first three opponents in 2016 by a combined score of 170-0, prompting five teams to forfeit their games. As with St. Frances’ opponents, the teams cited safety issues.

Archbishop Murphy’s Cascade Conference voted in December to disband. Then five of its seven teams formed a new league without the powerhouse. Officials said they wanted to play schools of their own size and competitive level. Archbishop Murphy’s football team will compete in a different conference.

While football is undeniably a risky sport, boosters say the growing awareness of its long-term harms has led to safer conditions.

Football still poses the greatest risk of injury of all high school sports, an annual national survey has found. The most recent National High School Sports-Related Injury Surveillance found a rate of almost 12 injuries for every 1,000 athletes competing in games. That compares to just over four injuries per 1,000 athletes competing in all of the nine sports surveyed.

Rates are generally lower for injuries during practices.

The alarm over concussions and hits to the head, in particular, have contributed to a drop in kids playing high school football. The National Federation of High School Associations reported a 2.3 percent drop in participation last year, continuing a trend of several years. Some schools, including Centennial High in Howard County, have disbanded their football teams, some citing safety. It remains the most popular high school sport for boys in the United States.

Elite high school players are increasingly achieving imposing college- and pro-level sizes.

A review of the 2017 MIAA A Conference football rosters shows St. Frances had more large players than most of its opponents. (Spalding does not list player weights.) The Panthers listed six players at more than 300 pounds. Calvert Hall had three such players; Mount St. Joseph and Gilman had one each.

It’s unclear whether the risk of injury increases when players are different sizes, because so many other factors — skills, experience and coaching, for example — come into play. A study published in the Orthopaedic Journal of Sports Medicine three years ago found no difference in injury rates between youth football leagues that were organized by age only and those that factored in the weight of the players.

Stephen Marshall, one of the authors of the study, said many factors go into each tackle and hit on the football field. Players size each other up and decide whether to try going through or around one another.

“When your opponent is bigger than you, you try to avoid getting hit by them,” said Marshall, an epidemiologist and director of the University of North Carolina Chapel Hill Injury Prevention Research Center.

“It’s plausible,” he added, “that there might be very similar injury rates between players who are the same size and speed and players that are very different sizes and speeds.”

School officials have been working to ease the turmoil.

Turner told The Sun that he hopes the public debate will lead to “constructive dialogue” and an appreciation of what St. Frances — the nation’s oldest continually operating predominantly black Catholic high school — is all about.

“Unfortunately, we hear but we don’t listen,” he said. “I’m more than willing to listen, and I hope people are willing to do the same thing.

“We have been misunderstood many times before. It’s never risen to the level where it got media attention, but one thing that has always solved it across the board for 10 years is when someone comes to our school, meets our kids, talks to our faculty, learns our history, they always walk away with a better understanding.

“I’ve never had anyone walk out of this building as angry about an issue as when they walked in.”

jean.marbella@baltsun.com

twitter.com/jean_marbella

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