Junior High Schools Discuss Switching Seasons

By Staff

Athletic Management, 17.3, April/May 2005, http://www.momentummedia.com/articles/am/am1703/wuseasons.htm

Interested in making the most efficient use of your facilities and equipment, as well as having more coaches for your middle school teams? Then listen to the idea a conference in Michigan has come up with.

The Big Nine Conference, which includes schools in and around Flint, is proposing that six of their middle school sports move to nontraditional seasons. Baseball, softball, and boys’ and girls’ track and field would be moved to the fall, while football, girls’ basketball, and boys’ and girls’ cross country would compete in the spring. The winter season would remain the same, and include volleyball, wrestling, boys’ basketball, and boys’ and girls’ swimming. (Michigan high schools currently play girls’ basketball in the fall and volleyball in the winter.)

"In our conference, most of our junior high teams play at their own facilities, but they are not very good facilities," says Rich Burdis, Athletic Director at Flushing (Mich.) High School and Middle School, a member of the Big Nine. "Usually the baseball or softball field was put down when the school was built 50 years ago, and it’s just a backstop and a dirt infield. The high schools have these nice facilities that basically sit vacant in the fall. So if we played baseball and softball in the fall at the junior high level, junior high kids could come to the high school to practice and play games at our varsity facilities. It would definitely be an advantage for those kids."

Burdis, who is leading the proposal, also expects that both coaches and officials would be more readily available to middle school programs during nontraditional seasons. He envisions some varsity coaches coaching their sport at the middle school level under this plan.

Switching the fall and spring seasons would also reduce weather-related problems for the middle schools. For example, instead of spending their preseasons indoors, baseball and softball teams could conduct early-season training in the summer and early fall. And football players would have fewer heat-related problems practicing in the cooler weather at the beginning of spring.

Burdis says the proposal has unanimous support from both the athletic directors and principals in all member schools. However, there is one roadblock that has slowed the proposal’s passage.

In some communities, youth sports organizations have indicated that the switching of seasons at the middle-school level would affect their offerings as well. For example, youth football would add eighth graders to their fall program and attract those student-athletes no longer playing football on their middle school team in the fall. Big Nine athletic directors are worried that this might encourage sport specialization.

"Kids would then have to make a choice," Burdis says. "If an athlete plays football for the school in the spring, is he going to be pressured to also play football in the fall with the youth program? If he does, then he’s not going to be able to run track and field or play baseball in the fall. Instead of giving kids more options, it would force them to make some very difficult choices."

In response to these concerns, the Big Nine Conference has decided to table voting on the proposal until there has been more discussion with community youth sports organizations. "We decided that each athletic director and each principal would go back to these youth groups and tell them that what we’re trying to do is give kids more opportunities," Burdis says. "I’m sure once we talk to them, they’ll jump on board."

This will also give athletic directors more time to talk to their coaches, players, parents, and other community members about the change. "When we first tell people about the proposal, they say, ‘Oh my, this is radical, you can’t do this!’" Burdis says. "People are afraid of change and they like tradition. But once people get over that shock and we talk about all the advantages, they like the idea."

Burdis has corresponded with the Michigan High School Athletic Association, which has no jurisdiction over the decision but has warned the Big Nine to consider any potential Title IX implications of the switch. The MHSAA is currently battling a lawsuit which alleges gender discrimination because some of its girls’ teams play in court-defined disadvantageous seasons. Although middle schools are not involved in the lawsuit, a community member could bring a case against the Big Nine if its change-of-season plan disadvantages girls’ teams more than boys’ teams. The Big Nine will be contemplating this issue in fine-tuning the proposal when it revisits the idea next year.