A year ago last August, the Los Angeles school district, second largest in the country, looked at its balance sheet and found more red ink than black.
That meant trouble for high school sports.
"We cut out $940,000 out of our athletic budget, which was 20% of the budget for 1991-92," said Dick Browning, division administrator of the city's senior high schools.
What a surprise. When school districts look for fat to slice from their budgets, they invariably start with sports. An Associated Press survey of all 50 states found administrators applying the ax across the country, in some cases cutting fringe activities like the flag corps, in others gutting whole programs from top to bottom.
At least 17 states report changes directly related to reduced budgets with some imposing pay-for-play fees on student-athletes, others foregoing pay increases for coaches, and some considering other sources of revenue such as commercial sponsorship for their teams.
"The situation is very bad virtually everywhere in the country," said Wayne Wilson, director of research and library services for the Amateur Athletic Foundation of Los Angeles.
Wilson edited a report on the crisis following a conference of educators who studied the problem and were torn between finding outside sources of funding while holding the line against commercialization of high school sports.
"In terms of proposed solutions," Wilson said, "people recommended developing a better understanding of the commercial value of high school sports. They felt it would be necessary for high school sports administrators to become fluent in the vocabulary of the business community and to have better understanding of the economic motivations that attract corporate involvement.
"Without some outside funding, it will be impossible to fund high school sports at the same level they've been in the past. I would say in many school districts, that needs to begin immediately."
That's what administrators in Chicago did. When the city's 75 public high school principals faced a $1.5 million budget cut, they declared that extracurricular activities--including all sports--would be eliminated unless $800,000 was restored by Nov. 1.
The threat worked. Spurred by $100,000 in seed money from the Chicago Sun-Times and a $400,000 contribution from Foot Locker, a sneaker company, private fund raising plugged the gap.
Were the principals holding sports hostage?
"Who's to say you cut chess and you keep basketball?" asked Dr. Richard Smith, principal of Martin Luther King High School.
In Los Angeles, the 20% budget cut of 1991-92 had an immediate impact. Junior varsity football was eliminated. So were boys gymnastics. And jayvee playoffs. And Saturday games. And travel to away games for bands and drill teams. And on, and on, and on.
This year, the district found it necessary to cut extra pay for coaches by 9% across the board, a savings of approximately $145,000. It also eliminated two positions from the district's athletic office, leaving a single administrator for the entire system. And, according to Browning, this year's cuts would have been more severe if last year's had not been so dramatic.
There have been no substantive cuts in New York, just little ones that have as much impact on those involved as huge ones would. At John F. Kennedy High School, New York City's defending public school football champions were playing on a field with just one set of goalposts. The other set was vandalized and with no funds for repair, they sat unused until a local welder agreed to repair them without charge. At John Adams High School, the aluminum bleachers were stolen and, because of cost, not replaced. The metal is too valuable on the open market to be left standing idle on an athletic field.
Dollar gaps are not an isolated problem. In Laconia, N.H., the athletic program operated for two years without school board funding. Fund raising activities and scaled-down programs kept the teams going. Without restored funding this year, athletic director Jim Fitzgerald said the programs would have had to have been shut down because the equipment was too old and unsafe.
Fitzgerald said it will take another four years to completely repair the decimation Laconia athletics have been through. He fights fiercely for his sports.
"They're not just kind of a frill," he said. "The playing field is a classroom as well as any classroom in the school."
What happens when programs are cut? Educators shudder to think about it.
The Rev. Robert Newbold, executive director of the Rhode Island Interscholastic League, wonders about the message sent by the elimination of sports. "I think it's an absolute contradiction to run an anti-dropout program and then drop sports," he said. "Sports are one of the things that attracts kids to school. If you drop them, it makes your dropout problem worse."