Harford fumbles on Aberdeen scoreboard

Those who make their living soliciting donations on behalf of charities, colleges and other nonprofits are occasionally asked by outsiders whether asking for contributions from the rich ever becomes tiresome. Doesn't it amount to begging in better dress?

The answer is no, because their job is not so much to tug at heartstrings as to make people happy. Signing that check is a thrill when a donor realizes how much it's going to help those who need it. As the purse is emptied the heart is filled, a happy circumstance that Victor Hugo observed more than a century ago.

It's also a lesson that members of the Harford County Board of Education might take to heart if they plan to make it a permanent policy to refuse large donations from National Football League players. In a time of great economic uncertainty, schools stand to benefit from charitable giving if reasonable parameters can be established that protect the core mission of public schools: providing the best possible education for all students.

Recently, the school board decided not to go along with Superintendent Robert Tomback's recommendation to accept a $20,000 donation from E.J. and Erin Henderson that was intended to help provide a new electronic scoreboard at Aberdeen High School. For those who don't follow pro football, a bit of background: E.J. Henderson was an All-American linebacker at the University of Maryland and is now a star player for the Minnesota Vikings. His younger brother Erin also played at Maryland and joined the Vikings as an undrafted free agent several years ago. Both are Aberdeen High graduates.

Why refuse such generosity? It came with the expectation that the facility would be named "Henderson Field," and board members expressed misgivings about setting a field-naming policy. One member likened it to selling naming rights. Others were likely uncomfortable because a previous school board last year declined to allow Fallston High School to name a field after a former student and football team captain who died in military service in Iraq.

That Erin Henderson two years ago failed a test for performance-enhancing drugs and was suspended by the NFL for four games was also brought up.

But why all the fuss? Why does it require school board action at all? Why not leave the matter of how to raise money for a new football scoreboard, or even what to name a field, up to the principal at Aberdeen, who could act in consultation with faculty and parents?

School boards have a natural tendency to want to set blanket policies that can address every situation. Their expectation is that an absolute rule — no naming of fields, for example — will prevent controversy, legal challenges or other unforeseen problems down the road. It is the bureaucrat's way of looking at the world: Consistency, consistency, consistency above all else.

There is a place for that. We would have concerns if the Hendersons were offering to change the curriculum or to affect the student-teacher ratio. Those involve the core mission of schools, and the board would rightly object to students at one county school ending up with greater resources in the classroom than those in another.

But scoreboards are an extra, an indulgence, a fun accessory that thrills athletes and their supporters but doesn't change educational outcomes or even provide a competitive advantage to the home team. It's the kind of thing that's usually financed by big soft drink companies and school boosters. Even with the $20,000, advocates for the new scoreboard would need to solicit more than $30,000 in private donations to cover its cost.

Aberdeen High is rightfully proud that the Hendersons attended. Why not encourage a continuing relationship with the family? Incidentally, the football stadium is just a home run away from Aberdeen High's baseball field, named after another famous resident, Cal Ripken Sr., the father of the Hall-of-Fame shortstop and 1978 Aberdeen graduate Cal Ripken Jr. That naming seems to have worked out fine for all involved.

The school board is certainly welcome to draft a policy on naming sports facilities — if its members truly have nothing better to do with their time. But until that happens, the board should keep an open mind and give schools some autonomy. Such donations ought to be encouraged, if possible, particularly at a time of scarce resources.

No doubt the Hendersons have suffered greater insults in their lives than a rejection from Harford County's school board. They are NFL players, after all. But as we approach the season of giving, it's a shame to see them denied the pleasure of helping out the youth of Aberdeen. It may not be quite the same as sacking a quarterback on third-and-long, but it remains one of life's great joys.

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