How to fix inequalities in CT high school sports? Administrators pitch their solutions

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In the wake of a recent Hearst Connecticut report on inequality in high school sports, numerous coaches and administrators have acknowledged the wide disparities between rich districts and poor ones as a problem.

As for what might be done about it? Opinions vary.

Some in high school sports have advocated for tweaks to CIAC rules, while others have suggested initiatives to allow schools with fewer resources greater access to equipment and instruction. Education advocates, meanwhile, argue that true change requires a more even distribution of school funding so that no one district has vastly more resources than another.

Hearst's multi-part report, published last week, found that wealthy communities dominate poorer ones across sports, with one particularly successful town (Darien) having won more state titles over the past decade than the 10 poorest towns and cities combined. Of the seven schools with the most championships during that period, all but one came from one of the state's wealthiest suburbs.

Current and former coaches and athletic directors cited several explanations for these disparities. Athletes from wealthier families often have more resources, both during and after their official high school students, including high-tech equipment and private instruction. Meanwhile, those from poorer families often have greater responsibilities away from sports, such as working part-time or looking after younger siblings, making it difficult for them to devote themselves fully to games and practices.

"I don't know what the right answer is," said Chris Passamano, athletic director at Stamford High, which often struggles to compete with much wealthier opponents from neighboring towns. "I just know there are things we deal with that others don't have to deal with."

Here are some proposed solutions.

Restructuring CIAC divisions

Currently, most Connecticut Interscholastic Athletic Conference sports classify teams by school size so that the largest schools compete in one class while smaller schools face off in another. But although, say, Bridgeport Central and Greenwich are both large schools, students there come from dramatically different backgrounds, and competition between the two in most sports is hardly even. 

To address that issue, some coaches and athletic directors say, the CIAC could construct its classes using criteria beyond school size so that poor districts are more likely to face fair competition.

Ridgefield athletic director Dane Street noted that some sports, including basketball, have already tinkered with how their classes are structured, allowing schools to petition for higher or lower classification based on skill level or pedigree.  

"I'm an advocate for seeing that across the board," Street said. "Have the sport committees take a look at their tournament structure and the way that they set up their divisions and try to factor in more than just size of school."

Restructuring CIAC classes would not meaningfully strengthen the instruction athletes in poorer communities receive but would give them a better chance to win, perhaps improving their experience.

Loosening rules around off-season practices

Many coaches and administrators, from rich and poor districts alike, bristle against rules that limit off-season contact between coaches and players. Some argue that these measures create inequities, as they leaves expensive camps and clinics as the only way for athletes to get formal instruction out of season.

"Suburban schools can afford to send kids to camps everywhere, and for the city schools it's not as easy," said Dave Schulz, commissioner of the Fairfield County Interscholastic Conference. "The city coaches want to be able to work with their kids."

As Street sees it, tweaking these rules would be an easy way to close gaps in instruction.  

"If you were allowed to have more contact with kids, I think it benefits everyone," he said. "If there's a community where kids can't afford to go camps or those types of things during the off-season, you're going to see those disparities widen."

Making camps and clinics easier to attend

Another way of bridging gaps in off-season instruction could be to make camps and clinics more accessible for students from all backgrounds.

On Twitter, the Weaver football program in Hartford shared a story of reaching out to local colleges asking for free admission to summer camps there "due to zero funds to participate" otherwise. Coaches were told the team could get in for half price, but the team couldn't afford even that discounted rate.

Jay Egan, athletic director at New Canaan High, proposes that high school sports leagues, or maybe even individual towns, organize off-season clinics that athletes without the ability to pay could attend for free.

"If it's possible anywhere, it should be possible in Connecticut to find some sponsorships or some philanthropic method to help level the playing as far as instruction for youth is concerned," Egan said. "It's an opportunity."

Fundraising for a greater good

Currently, much of the advantage that high-income districts hold comes from their ability to fundraise beyond their allotted budget. A wealthy community full of students whose parents have money to burn can inevitably pull together more cash for equipment, instruction or even a scoreboard with a six-figure price tag.

Joe Aresimowicz, football coach at Berlin High and a former longtime state legislator, suggests a simple solution: some level of regional or statewide fundraising to benefit all schools, not just the ones whose communities can afford to contribute.

"Any of us can get together and do a fundraiser and we can help out some of those districts," he said.

Schulz said the FCIAC would be happy to sponsor some sort of regional fundraising in Fairfield County, if suburban schools in the area are willing to participate.

"We haven't looked at that, but it is something that could be looked at," Schulz said. "You'd need support of our suburban towns to give money that goes to not their kids."

Bolstering youth and middle school sports

Alternately, some of that fundraising effort could go toward establishing or bolstering youth leagues in places that don't have them.

Coaches and athletic directors say athletes who have come through high-quality youth or middle school programs — more common in wealthier communities — are more likely to succeed in high schools.

"If you have a good, robust youth football program, by the time you get to high school they know the game, they've played it, they've had shoulder pads and helmets on," Passamano said. "A district like ours, a huge portion of kids the first time they're throwing a helmet and shoulder pads on is the first day of freshman practice."

In a Twitter thread, former West Hartford soccer, basketball, lacrosse and track and field coach Steve Boyle argued that stronger youth sports programs help spur turnout for high school teams, which leads to more wins and a better athlete experience.

"We have to focus on growing participation before [students] get to high school," wrote Boyle, who runs a youth sports organization called 2-4-1 Sports. "Fund quality before/after school sport programs at our elementary and middle schools and you will see a significant uptick in desire to participate at the high school level and increase student performance along the way." 

Rethinking education funding more broadly

Ultimately, all the above solutions address sports narrowly, in hopes of making the competitions more equitable within a deeply unequal state.

Another approach — albeit a much more complex and difficult one — could be to address the underlying state- and society-wide disparities that result in some communities (and some people) having far more resources than others.

When it comes to education, the differences from one town to the next are often stark. Weston, for example, spends $24,000 annually per student on education, while Waterbury spends only $16,500.

"When you have a system that allows districts to just be chronically under-resourced ... I'm not surprised that district then does not have the opportunity and the resources to provide extracurricular sports activities for their students," said Lisa Hammersley, executive director of the School and State Finance Project, a Hamden-based nonprofit.

Hammersley advocates for education funding to be more evenly distributed statewide so that a town's property tax base doesn't determine the quality of education there. Equal funding, she says, would go a long way toward closing educational gaps — and possibly athletic ones as well.

"We are failing generations after generations of students, and it is a very strong shortcoming of the state of Connecticut," Hammersley said. "We need to ensure that every student across the state of Connecticut is provided the same opportunity regardless of what municipality they live in."

alex.putterman@hearstmediact.com