The football decision unfolded

By Maria Libby | Oct 05, 2015

I always considered myself lucky that I could throw a nice spiral. More than once, I tossed around a football with students at recess when I was principal at Camden-Rockport Middle School. I have happily attended numerous local middle school and high school football games over the years, and win or lose, I have always admired the players’ fortitude and grit. Like most sports fans in New England, I also look forward to watching the Patriots on Sunday afternoon, hoping one day I will actually find myself in Gillette Stadium. I am sharing this because it is important to know that I appreciate the game, I have supported our players, and I have every interest in trying to figure out how to keep football alive and well at Camden Hills. In fact, every one I know on the “inside," from the principal to the athletic director to the board chair, deeply appreciates the value of the football program at our high school. We know that football provides an important niche for some players who otherwise would not participate on a sports team. We know that players can develop a sense of belonging, self-discipline, and determination through the game. We know that it means a lot to the families who have been involved in football in our community. We didn’t make the decision lightly.

When I took over the superintendency in late June, I knew that the 2014 football season had ended with low numbers — in the teens. This summer, I checked in with the AD about numbers to make sure we had enough to begin the season. Though I thought the numbers were low (20 or so), he was confident more would join. The AD and coach worked on recruiting players and eventually brought the number to the upper 20s. I still had some concerns, because I knew the team was young and didn’t have the experience level of most varsity teams, but quietly let it be. Before long, we faced Bucksport. During that game, we were overpowered and had a tough time competing. Our players sustained numerous injuries, two of which landed in the emergency room. Some of our players were afraid to go in, although that won’t be admitted publicly, and I understand why. On Monday after that defeat, only 11 players showed up ready for practice. The AD had been in contact with the coach throughout the season, and the coach had also expressed numerous concerns along the way. These factors, taken together, gave cause for the administration to convene and have a serious conversation about whether it was safe to field a football team.

The principal, AD, and I met on Wednesday in the early afternoon. We talked for almost two hours about the situation, the possibilities, and the implications of various decisions. We had information from the coach and the MPA to bring to bear on that conversation. Most of the conversation focused on whether or not we could safely go against MCI in two weeks, a team known to be strong and physical. Given everything we knew, we all determined that the safety risk of playing against MCI was too high. We could not knowingly put students in that situation. Even if players and parents would be willing to assume that risk, the school administration could not. There are many times in the course of our lives when a public system cannot tolerate the same level of risk that an individual can. For instance, I would have let my then 14-year-old drive a car on the road, but the state deems that unsafe until the age of 16 (and for some that is still not a safe age!) Likewise, many students would willingly take the risk of climbing onto the roof of the middle school to retrieve a ball and then jumping down, but that is a safety risk we cannot allow. At the most fundamental level, that is what this decision was about. As school administrators, we did not feel it was safe to put a young team, compromised by injury, with relatively low numbers on the field knowing it was likely they’d be hurt, possibly seriously hurt. All three of us felt the same without an inkling of doubt.

Then the question became what to do about Ellsworth. That was trickier. We recognized that we would be more competitive against Ellsworth, but our team was not at its peak. The number of healthy players was low and we knew we were going to cancel against MCI. We reasoned that if we were going to forfeit the MCI game, it was not prudent to compete even against Ellsworth. We couldn’t take the chance, knowing that our team was compromised in numerous ways. We also knew that the MPA doesn’t allow a varsity team to forfeit a game, or to pick and choose opponents. The consequence of forfeiting a game is ending the entire season. There are some exceptions made to that general rule, but it was unlikely we’d be one of them. I have talked at length to MPA and it is clear the dye was cast with a forfeit. Since it was MCI’s homecoming game we would be forfeiting, we felt we needed to let them know with enough time to develop an alternative.

We knew the costs of canceling were high. We had seniors on the team, the football community has worked hard and invested a lot to build a program, and we knew parents and players would be upset. Safety had to trump those realities however. We are entrusted to keep students safe and naturally are relatively conservative about that. We acted on what we felt was our responsibility. Nothing else.

In retrospect, I wish we had included the coach in that Wednesday meeting. He doesn’t bear the responsibility of decision making that building and district administrators do, but it would have been helpful to have his additional input, for him to understand the decision better, and to help strategize about how to best communicate the decision.

We had planned to quietly inform the coach on Wednesday night, the MPA, Ellsworth, and MCI on Thursday morning, asking everyone to keep the information private until the parents and players found out on Thursday evening. Things didn’t go as planned and it hit the media on Thursday morning. Since students were hearing the news at school through social media, the principal and AD quickly gathered the players and gave them the news first-hand Thursday morning. Out of respect for the team, they preserved the Thursday evening team meeting time, but by then emotions were running high.

In the past week, I have met at length with the coach and a couple of parents to address concerns about the decision. The school board chairman, Kristin Collins, and I are both open to continue talking individually to parents who want to focus on the decision (outcome, process, implications, etc). That is the appropriate avenue for those conversations because the decision is not going to be revisited. It is a done deal. In talking to the MPA at length, we really don’t have any options for this season. As such, it isn’t productive to dwell on the decision. I have tried to share it openly and honestly in this column so that parents and players and other interested community members might have a better and more accurate understanding of how and why it was made.

We are hosting a forum Monday Oct. 5, from 7 to 8 p.m. in the gym to discuss options for the future of football. That is an opportunity for meaningful input into how we move forward. What are the possibilities for next year? What do we need in order to have a sustainable and safe program? Please come in the spirit of productively moving forward in collaboration with the school.

On a final note, I recognize that as superintendent I will have to make many difficult, and sometimes, unpopular decisions. That comes with the position and I am ready to take responsibility for that. Know that as superintendent in our school districts I care deeply about our students and have been advocating for them in so many ways for nearly two decades. I am creative, thoughtful, and compassionate. I am ready to own my mistakes and listen to feedback about how to improve. Together with this community that I hold dearly, I am hoping to build something truly special in our school system.

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Comments (1)
Posted by: Mary A McKeever | Oct 07, 2015 16:17

Well said and hopefully the community will agree with this decision. My children went through the sports programs safely from Camden High and also my grandchildren. Couches and referees always put safety first and as a parent that was my priority too. Thank you Maria for your thoughtful input and I agree wholeheartedly with you.

Mickey "Brown" McKeever


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