Beneath the turf: Understanding the politics of high school sports
As varsity soccer player and senior Max Brunke walks onto the field at the high school, a rush of adrenaline pumps through his body. Under the bright stadium lights, he sees the rest of his team huddled together by its bench. The school’s logo in the middle of the field reminds him of who he plays for. Though the stands are mostly empty, he is energized by the sight of some of his friends, there to support him. The opposing team stands tall and intimidating on the other side of the field, but he is confident in his own ability and the skills of his teammates. As the players prepare to start the game, Brunke looks around. He is ready to play the sport he loves for the school he loves.
Varsity athletics are considered by many to be a pivotal part of high school, seeing as over 8 million students will play at least one sport for their school this year, according to the NCAA. The behind-the-scenes, however, is not as talked about. There are many aspects that go into each team’s performance on the turf, affecting them before, during and after the game.
UNDERSTANDING TURF TIME
For any team to improve, practice is essential. Teams must learn how they work together and perform to be effective during gametime. But with a marching band and 11 teams vying for practice time on one turf just during the fall season, including four varsity teams, scheduling practice time can be difficult.
“Scheduling the turf is so difficult due to the number of programs that want to use it. This is actually a good problem because we have so many successful programs that want to have as many high quality practices as possible in order to get better,” Athletic Director Buck Weaver said. “Our turf sport coaches work together to come up with the schedule for the turf. This process begins approximately six months in advance.”
The NCAA and OHSAA both have to follow a national law, referred to as Title IX. This rule, passed in 1972, is supposed to keep all sports teams equal, forbidding discrimination of any sort based on gender.
From the start of the season on Aug. 13 to the end of the regular season on Oct. 13, girls soccer gets the most time on the field, with 83 hours including games. Field hockey and football are not very far behind with 76.5 hours and 72 hours respectively, according to Weaver.
Practice time is essential for many teams, but once the season begins, home games also affect the scheduling of the turf. Weaver said he schedules out four hours for any home game, including practice time before the game and the possibility of overtime. This scheduling is also affected by the frequency of games for each team.
Generally, the boys and girls soccer teams have games on Tuesdays and Thursdays while the field hockey team has games on Mondays and Wednesdays. The football team plays on Fridays. With a potential game each weekday, finding a way to balance all the schedules can be challenging.
“Everybody wants on the turf all the time, which is a good thing. From 3 p.m. on a school day until 9 or 10 p.m., the lights are on, and it’s being used,” Weaver said.
With each team in the school wanting to get time on the prized turf, there is a limited amount of time each team gets. Some players said they feel they have been overlooked in the past and haven’t gotten the time that they deserve.
“This year I think everyone gets the same amount of time, more than last year. Last year was a very big problem, and sometimes field hockey and football would have to share the field,” junior field hockey player Katelin Shane said.
Last season, the field hockey team encountered several struggles. The schedule for the fall sports had already been set and agreed upon, but the field hockey team was then told that their time would be moved around or cancelled, head coach Anna Karousis said.
“The moving around of the turf time didn’t sit well with us. I had to follow up, the parents had to follow up and the kids had to follow up, and we had to set an agreed upon resolution,” Karousis said.
In addition, some imbalance was felt by the field hockey team regarding the time they were allotted on the turf. Recalling the Title IX law, a major point of passion for Karousis was the equality between sports, and the quality of their scheduled time.
“I love the football boys. I want them to succeed, and I don’t think anyone is out to get another sport. I just feel the problem may be a lack of respect between sports. Even though field hockey may make less money or is less popular, we must still be given equal time by law,” Karousis said.
Before this year, there was barely, if any, in-person discussion over the turf schedule. In an attempt to remedy this problem, the process of scheduling was altered going into the fall season. To figure out this year’s turf schedule, in February, all of the coaches sat down in a room, traded schedules and figured out the times that worked best for them.
“I initiated a process where our coaches come together and decide ‘okay, here’s how we’re doing it’. This year it worked wonderfully, and we didn’t have any disagreements or issues, at least we didn’t have any that came to me,” Weaver said.
From the perspective of Pioneer football, the scheduling conflicts and confusion have never been as minimal as they have been this season.
“I think it’s the best it has ever been, and I think it’s really beneficial for all sports,” head football coach Zebb Schroeder said.
In past years, the coaches were never obligated to openly communicate with each other about how they wanted the schedule, which may have been a source of some issues.
“My first year, it was kind of like each sport already had their predetermined days, and if you couldn’t use them then someone else could jump in. We never got together in the same room and talked through it,” Schroeder said.
However, with the new system put in place by Mr. Weaver, the distribution of turf time seems to be getting much more equal and accommodating. Overall, the fall sports are learning that communication is key.
“I would say the system has gotten much better, but we still have a lot of room to improve,” Karousis said.
THE EFFECTS OF ATTENDANCE
At an athletic event, a crucial part of the atmosphere is created by the fans. The roar of the crowd as attendees cheer for their teams is synonymous with emotional moments in a game and can often affect players’ performance as well.
Many high school sporting events have dropped in attendance this fall compared to last year. As of Oct. 1, boys soccer has faced a 52.9 percent decrease in average attendance per game, compared to girls soccer with an 11.4 percent decrease. Field hockey has also seen a 19.4 percent decrease. Weaver points to the weather as a possible reason for these changes.
“If you look at the weather we've had this fall, we've had a foot more rain than we've had in any recent years past, and many don't want to sit in the rain,” Weaver said.
Even so, football games seem to be immune to these issues. Friday night home games have had a 3.4 percent increase in average ticket sales per game for the start of the fall season. The average amount of tickets sold during varsity games in 2017 was at 2596.4 tickets per game. This year, the team has sold an average of 2684 tickets per game as of Oct. 1, making it the most popular sport in the school.
“Football Friday nights are my favorite games to go to. I like dressing up with the themes and taking pictures,” senior Lily Wehr said.
The love of football Friday nights that many students share can also be explained on a psychological level. According to the Association of Psychological Science, students who are passionate about a team—high school or otherwise—often have higher self-esteem and general levels of positive emotions. This relationship also decreases their feelings of alienation and loneliness.
However, the students who attend sporting events don’t just affect themselves when they are there. They also change the attitude of the athletes in the game.
“When students show up to field hockey games, hearing them cheer for us makes me work harder because if they’re gonna come out and watch me, I might as well work hard and play well. I wish the student body knew how much their attendance influences our play,” senior field hockey player Devyn Fischer said.
Field hockey's most attended game so far this year had 88 total tickets sold, compared to varsity football game against Bishop Watterson in August with 2794 tickets sold. This difference in attendance affects the atmosphere of the game.
“The students and football team have a relationship in which they feed off each other’s energy. If the football team is doing its job and winning, giving the students a reason to cheer, they’ll attend the games. This affects our team’s performance because as a player we want to win and give the student section something to cheer for,” varsity football player and junior Ian Enders said.
For sports with lower attendance, or sports that have seen drastic drops in attendance, athletes can sometimes feel discouraged. Last year, boys soccer sold an average of 209 tickets per game, compared to this year’s average of 98.4. Brunke said this has a noticeable effect on him and his teammates.
“Seeing the [soccer] attendance from last year compared to this year is disappointing. It feels like we lost support somewhere along the way, and we have a better record this year than we did last year, so it doesn’t really make sense that we lost support,” Brunke said. “Not seeing many of your classmates at a game is discouraging, but we know we have a job to do. We have to get it done, but it would feel a lot easier if we had more support.”
Brunke said that he thinks higher attendance at all athletic events could help create a stronger sense of community within the school.
“Going to other sporting events helps make other teams feel better about themselves, and it improves their performance in the game. The athletic department tried to implement a plan to get athletes to come to each other’s games, and it happened once last year, but it hasn’t done much for us yet,” Brunke said.
THE COST OF ATHLETICS
Everything has a price tag—including the school’s athletic programs. For each program to run as smoothly, spending money is an integral part of the process. The financial status of the athletics at the school can be determined by multiple factors: pay-to-play fees, ticket sales and fundraisers.
All student-athletes are expected to pay what is called a “pay-to-play fee” in order to participate in athletics at the school. These fees are used to pay for coaches’ salaries, as well as transportation and Final Forms for the students, and the costs vary for each team. Final Forms is a system that allows the school and parents to track and monitor the forms required for students to play sports.
Similarly, ticket gate sales are dedicated towards improving the athletic program for each sport. As of Oct. 1, football has raised $44,427 in gate fees, girls soccer has raised $4,129, boys soccer has raised 3,108 and field hockey has raised $2,134 for this season. The money raised by both teams is then distributed across all athletic programs. These sales are distributed to teams based on their necessities for each season, and then spread evenly between sports.
“For football helmets, that's an Ohio law we have. They have to be reconditioned every year. So the football team gets extra money allotted for that. Ice hockey needs ice time, so they get significantly more money than a lot of the other programs.” Weaver said.
The athletic department also looks to fund projects that will result in major improvements for all sports. They are currently exploring the possibility of using the ticket gate sales to purchase 22 acres behind the tree line in order to to allow for more space for teams to train on.
“I work with our coaches to try and come up with something big we want to do,” Weaver said. “I’m kind of holding our teams back and asking them what they need, not what they want, because we’re going to try and do a big project that will set us apart, because I believe we’re an elite school and I want to do something that’s going to be awesome for all of our programs.”
Each year, the average athlete is also expected to help the team raise money through fundraisers. Most of that money goes directly to the team itself, but 10 percent of it goes into a pool managed by the Athletic Boosters, a parent-run group separate from the athletic department. This general booster account was created with the purpose of assisting teams with major purchases that may not be covered by their fundraising alone.
According to Booster Club treasurer Susan Davis, the group often covers 50-75 percent of the costs of purchases with board approval. They do so through the 10 percent fee, the group’s annual door-to-door drive and indoor concessions. Each athletic team also has their own funds within the boosters’ shared bank account.
“We are able to see what each sport and the general boosters have accumulated. This knowledge allows us and the sport teams to understand what they can afford. In addition, the board analyzes this information to decide if we can approve capital requests in the event we feel this purchase supports our mission,” Davis said.
One example of a major purchase that was made possible by the Booster Club was the purchase of the turf itself, which cost slightly less than $1 million, according to Weaver.
In addition to the general booster account, there is also a Pop Arts booster account that receives all the money from concessions at games. The general booster account paid for 43 percent of the turf, and the Pop Arts booster paid for 20 percent. The rest of the turf was then paid for by several sports teams, with football paying for 15 percent, boys and girls soccer and lacrosse paying for 5 percent each and field hockey paying for 2 percent of the turf. According to Weaver, there is only one small payment of about $10,000 remaining until the turf is completely paid off. According to Davis, the Booster Club was integral to both the financial success and the implementation of the turf.
“The Boosters were vital in the turf installation. We acted as the liaison between all of the field sports, private investors and the Bank to make sure that everyone was informed of the process and project. Once the turf was installed, we retained the position of paying the loan, the private investors and making sure everyone had up-to-date information to ensure success,” Davis said.
When it comes to individual sports teams, athletes and coaches are responsible for raising money for their team through fundraisers. One such fundraiser is the mattress sale that the track team and marching band do each year.
According to track coach Adam Walters, the team looks to gain nearly $8,000 to $10,000 each year from this fundraiser. This money has allowed the track team to purchase new hurdles, pole vault poles, throwing equipment, a timing system for sprinters, foam rollers and GPS watches.
“Athletes need to participate because it's their team. I do get annoyed when athletes don’t participate because essentially someone else is raising money for another person to benefit from,” Walters said.
However, sometimes it can be difficult for students to participate in these fundraisers due to other commitments.
“Fundraising has the potential to really help all teams at our school maintain high standards of equipment, and students should be contributing to the team’s efforts. However, coaches should make an effort to schedule times for teams to fundraise as opposed to sending them out without any structure,” junior varsity runner Andre Farinazo said.
Fundraising for athletics not only provides teams an opportunity to raise money for themselves, but also gives athletes a chance to become closer as a team. This money results in purchases that will benefit those programs and future players for years to come.
Though most people picture the cheering fans and the rush of the game when they think of a high school sporting event, there is much more going on behind the scenes than people realize. The athletic department, the Booster Club and the attendees of the game all affect every game on Pioneer Field.