This time, board on mark in cutting golf, gymnastics RTC

June 13, 1993|By Gary Lambrecht | Gary Lambrecht,Staff Writer

The Howard County school board has been known to cut high school sports in the wrong places.

Sooner or later, the board was bound to get it right. When it decided to eliminate varsity golf and gymnastics, thus trimming an estimated $75,000 to meet next year's $900,000 athletic budget, the board struck a worthy target for a change.

In austere times like these, this was a cut dying to happen. Golf and gymnastics had three strikes against them: too costly, too many liability problems, not enough athletes.

The cost of each sport -- cost that includes coaching salaries, transportation, equipment and officials -- is tied directly to the number of students who play the games. And the plain truth is golf and gymnastics had reached the point where their existence could not be justified at the expense of the public.

Golfers and gymnasts long have been far out-numbered by every other brand of high school athlete in the county. The county had 32 golfers and 85 gymnasts this year, at a tab of roughly $500 per player in each sport.

Compare that with the rest of the athletics pie. This year, the county had 285 wrestlers at a cost of $300 each, 449 basketball players ($215 each), 279 baseball players ($220). At the top end of the curve, the county had 668 football players at a cost of $262 per player, 637 soccer players ($219) and 649 indoor track athletes at a bargain-basement rate of $81 apiece.

It makes no sense to finance a sport that hardly anyone is playing.

Six years ago, when Mount Hebron coach P. J. Kesmodel persuaded the board to finance the start-up of a girls lacrosse program, he stressed two key points. First, Title IX of the Education Act of 1972 applied pressure to give girls the same access to lacrosse that boys had long enjoyed. Second, Kesmodel argued persuasively that girls would sustain the growth of the sport.

He was right. Girls lacrosse quickly became one of the county's more popular sports. This spring, 342 girls played lacrosse at a cost of about $200 per player.

Besides the documented costs, consider potential liability costs. Here is where the problem gets scary. And in these litigious days, any school board would be foolish not to anticipate the possibility of a huge lawsuit.

With golf, the liability problem surfaced last year, when transportation to the courses was eliminated during one of the board's many recent cuts of the athletic budget.

Don Disney, the school system's coordinator of athletics, grew concerned after learning that many golfers were driving themselves directly from school to the golf course, instead of driving home first to avoid potential liability problems. Disney said $6,200 would have been needed to pay for transportation next year, an amount the board deemed out of the question.

Liability hazards also have surrounded gymnastics in recent years, as equipment had begun to deteriorate. Tumbling was being conducted on wrestling mats. Bars needed to be replaced. And because gymnastics equipment is among the most expensive, the sport did not have a balance beam to stand on. The solution to cut gymnastics turned into a no-brainer.

"Except for Atholton, there are no gym rooms, so we had a major storage problem. Equipment was being left in the gym and hallways as an attractive nuisance," Disney said.

"It had to be assembled and broken down repeatedly, and it was being done by kids. With no regular maintenance of equipment, no gym rooms, many unqualified coaches and only about 10 active gymnasts per school, the dollars in gymnastics is a black hole."

The liability dilemmas also are a product of previous spending cuts. Four years ago, the board removed $7,000 from each high school's athletic equipment replacement funds -- nearly one-third to pay for band uniforms. In what coaches and athletic directors see correctly as a slap at athletics, that money never has been replaced. Instead, it has been trimmed to $8,600 per school, compared with the high-water mark of $20,000 in the late-1980s.

Gymnastics caused other problems. For years, baseball and softball coaches have grumbled about getting squeezed out of the gym on rainy practice days. Those coaches had a point. When 30 or more baseball and softball players have no place to play, while half a dozen gymnasts take up the entire gymnasium floor, resources are being misused.

By cutting gymnastics, Howard County isn't breaking new ground. The sport has been dying across the state at the high school level for years. Only Montgomery and Anne Arundel counties offer it to high school students. After the Howard decision, those systems probably will drop gymnastics as well.

That will turn the sport completely over to the jurisdiction that has claimed it for all intents and purposes anyway -- the gymnastics club. Five clubs are available to Howard residents, three in Columbia and one each in Laurel and Eldersburg.

Golfers shouldn't be lost in the shuffle, either. They will be able to compete in tournaments, including the state finals at the University of Maryland. Hammond golf coach Mike Mongelli has volunteered to coordinate a club league of county golfers next year. Golfers will compete at Hobbit's Glen in Columbia.

The school board has come under fire on numerous occasions regarding its treatment of athletics, and the fire usually has been deserved.

This time, however, instead of asking the board why it cut golf and gymnastics, a more appropriate question is why did the board wait so long to pull the trigger?

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