Of all the hot topics in high school sports in this area, I don’t think any stir as much passion as the debate about whether private schools should compete against public schools in athletics. And ’tis the season for the question to again come to the forefront.
It doesn’t come up in the fall during football season. No one raised the issue when St. Joseph just won a state title. It doesn’t come up in the spring during baseball season.
But from the time the basketballs are rolled onto the court at the end of November until CIAC champions are crowned in March, there is an outcry from public school supporters about having to compete against private schools.
I am going to tackle this issue backwards.
First, don’t look here for me to offer a grand new plan because there isn’t a good one. I don’t believe the CIAC wants separate leagues to happen, and its best solution is to make the private schools play up in class during the state playoffs, which certainly is imperfect. But the CIAC doesn’t have a lot of options to play with.
Contrary to some of the attempts to split all the Catholic schools into two divisions on some previous blog posts here, they look good on paper but lousy in practicality. I am going to deal with this from the Trinity Catholic perspective, since that is the private school I cover most frequently, though this will be applicable to all schools.
The closest private schools to Trinity are Notre Dame of Fairfield, Fairfield Prep, St. Joseph, Kolbe Cathedral and Immaculate. Those trips would be the equivalent of Trinity now going to Norwalk or New Canaan. As much as fans see this as a simple solution, the travel time and costs are prohibitive. And, as someone suggested, to the contrary you cannot compare Trinity heading upstate to FCIAC schools traveling to Danbury, which happen once every other year.
Going to Fairfield, Bridgeport or Danbury would be Trinity’s shortest trip. Because of how far the Catholic schools are spread out, a league of its own is just not practical and would make long days even longer for student-athletes.
Now, having said that, I cannot argue that private schools have an inherent advantage in that they are regional and thus can draw from a much larger area. The fact that Trinity has been able to get players on the team from the White Plains area has provided it with a huge edge. I have shared that opinion with people at the school. Would Trinity have been as successful without Rashamel Jones, Earl Johnson and Torey Thomas? Of course not.
But the above-mentioned options are not viable, as much as people would like to solve this problem with one broad stroke of the brush. And if the CIAC had a better answer, it would have enacted it already.
Before making two more points, and since I suspect this post will draw a lot of comments, I’m curious why this issue is raised only during basketball season? Is it because, unlike many other sports, it only takes one or two good players to make such an impact in basketball? Is it because the private schools probably have had more success in basketball than other sports? It is because basketball, after football, is the most high-profile sport out there?
Back to the two points. While some comments on this blog have talked about how great the rivalries would be in a new Catholic school league, what about Trinity-Stamford? That FCIAC final last year was one of the great spectacles in the city’s rich sports history. What about Trinity-Westhill? St. Joseph-Trumbull? What about the long-standing tradition Trinity has had after all the years in the FCIAC? Are people really ready to see that all go away?
And there is one bigger point that is going to make me seem like an apologist, but is never brought up and I believe is quite salient. Years ago, during a practice on the day before a state final, Johnson and I sat in the Trinity gymnasium and discussed the issue.
“Everyone talks about what we do for the school,” Johnson said. “How about what the school has done for us?”
What would have happened to Jones, Johnson and Thomas without the opportunities that were afforded them? Jones won a national championship at UConn, later returned to get his degree and is now working with underprivileged kids in Mount Vernon. We met at Madison Square Garden three weeks ago and it is nice to see the person he has become. He was introduced to some influential UConn boosters and made a strong impression.
I have to admit, I am more sensitive to this than the average fan because I have had the chance to get to know most of the Trinity players from outside the Stamford area fairly closely, keep in touch with several of them, and I guess because of that I have a little different view on the matter. And I realize Jones, Johnson and Thomas could have still come to Trinity and played in a Catholic school league.
So there it is. Is there a problem? I’ll call it a loophole. Do the private schools have an inherent edge? Absolutely. If you tell me there should be separate leagues, I cannot argue with you. But until a reasonable solution that I don’t think is ever coming is presented, I think this debate is going to rage on for a long time to come.