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Winter schedule shake-up reaches an uneasy compromise


Compromise has been called the art of the possible. But compromise usually involves reaching a messy decision that upsets as many people as it satisfies.

Take next year's controversial high school winter sports schedule. Don Disney, the coordinator of physical education, has devised a series of changes that have drawn a range of understandable reactions.

Beginning next winter, the boys and girls basketball schedule will be turned upside down and inside out.

Tuesday or Wednesday games will no longer be played in the evening, and varsity and junior varsity teams will begin traveling together. Junior varsity games will start at 3:30 p.m., with varsity games beginning at 5. And on Friday nights, while the doubleheader format of the last five years has been retained, the boys and girls teams will alternate the 6 and 7:30 p.m. slots. In the past, the boys game had always been the finale.

Each of these proposals carries implications, positive and negative, for some interested party.

When the idea of shifting game times was first discussed last winter, Disney touted $40,000 in security cost savings as a major reason for the change. Disney's reasoning was the school system wouldn't have to hire as many rented cops to guard the exits, watch the games and generally hang out in the school hallways in the evenings. Four security officers typically are present at an event.

But it became obvious Disney mainly was yielding to pressure from high school administrators, chiefly principals. Administrators are required to be in the building when their schools play host to sports events, and they have grown tired of working occasional 15-hour days during the winter season. Principals also wish to promote the idea of studying in the evenings instead of watching or playing sports.

Disney gave in to their requests, albeit with a compromise. Instead of scuttling all nighttime sports, he left Friday nights intact. But his decision to flip-flop starting times of boys and girls games on Fridays marks another significant change. He explained the change by citing Title IX, the 1972 federal legislation that guarantees equal access to sports opportunities to both sexes in the nation's public schools and universities.

Although the political correctness of Disney's reasoning can't be disputed, the Title IX explanation seems like a bit of a reach. I don't recall hearing one player or one parent complain that girls teams were being discriminated against by playing the first game. I don't recall any lawsuits being filed alleging the same. Disney said he has "wrestled" with the girls-boys format for several years.

Do you think it's a coincidence that Disney decided on this course a year after Jackie French, a woman, assumed the supervisor of physical education job? I don't.

Disney has drawn praise and criticism for the changes, along partisan lines. Principals love the idea of going home early. Varsity boys coaches generally like the idea of junior varsity-varsity pairings during the week, since it gives them a chance to evaluate their upcoming players.

Girls coaches, however, see both scheduling changes as steps backward for their programs. They fear that, given the choice students -- and whatever parents can watch afternoon games -- have to make between boys and girls games, most will opt for the boys. They also envision spectators leaving their seats in droves after the boys game on those Friday nights when girls are scheduled to play the second half of the doubleheader.

Judging by history, the girls coaches have a strong case.

During the 1986-1987 season, the last year boys and girls basketball teams played at separate sites, nearly twice as many receipts were collected at boys games. And since the varsity girls and boys began playing back-to-back five seasons ago, crowds have typically been light at tip-off time for the 6 p.m. girls game, then have grown. The bleachers generally are more populated for boys games.

This is understandable, since the boys play a faster, more athletic game. Fans are more likely to see a dunk or some other type of uncommon athletic feat at a boys game.

Boys coaches like Oakland Mills' Dave Appleby think the girls program has grown to the point where it can stand on its own. He might be right. It could even be argued that the girls program, with longtime stalwarts like Mount Hebron and Glenelg and new powers like defending state-champion Hammond, is more prestigious than the boys.

In that light, it's hard to envision hundreds of people walking out on a Friday night girls game between Hebron and Hammond next year, regardless of what time it starts. That scenario, however, is much more likely before a more mediocre girls contest like Atholton-Wilde Lake.

My guess is girls attendance will suffer noticeably, especially during the week, although not as drastically as some coaches fear. More fans will flock to watch the boys, but the fans will not ignore what looks like a good girls matchup.

Over the past four seasons, Howard County's girls basketball program has become the best in the state. Only a decline in the quality of players and coaching, not the amount of empty seats, is going to change that.

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