This year, the Oswego City School District had to make the difficult decision to suspend the 2019 varsity football season due to a declining number of participants, a scenario that posed significant risk of injury to our students. We felt it was important to share in greater specificity, the timeline and other details regarding this decision to enhance public understanding of this emotional situation. Although to some, this decision may have seemed sudden and nonchalant, that couldn’t be farther from the truth. We have been actively monitoring our football program, engaged in solutions to reverse current trends since 2015.
Not unlike many districts regionally and nationwide, the number of student athletes interested in playing football for Oswego has been on the decline for many years. Oswego once supported freshman, junior varsity and varsity teams. In 2016, however, we made the decision to only field a junior varsity team as the total roster had dwindled to 33 players. In 2017, that junior varsity team became a varsity team with only 20 students remaining dedicated to the sport. That same season we had to forfeit the homecoming game because injuries prevented us from having enough players to safely participate. Because we continued to have significant concerns about student health and safety, in 2018, we moved our football program from Class A of Section III in the NYS Public High School Athletic Association, to the newly created Developmental League. Although there were 26 students on our original roster that year, we often had just enough players for each game due to serious injuries and lack of consistent attendance at practices.
In April of 2019, we posted “intent to play” on the website, hopeful that our roster would be robust enough to support healthy participation. Unfortunately, a borderline 23 students signed up, leaving it unclear as to what we should do. We held out hope that more students would be recruited closer to school starting and that the 23 signed up would commit fully to the team. Neither of these happened. Instead, attendance was sporadic and serious safety concerns surfaced. The number of students at practices ranged between 14 and 18 athletes. In fact, we were forced to cancel our participation in a multi-school scrimmage because we did not have enough eligible students to field a team.
After the Director of Physical Education and Athletics, Ms. Rhonda Bullard, and the Athletic Trainer shared their concerns with me, I immediately notified the Board of Education. Ms. Bullard continued to monitor the situation, reporting to me regularly as various solutions were explored. In addition, the head football coach continually emphasized the importance of consistent attendance with the players. When it became clear we would not have enough players to play safely, I convened a meeting with Ms. Bullard, the athletic trainer and the head coach to discuss our options and make a collaborative decision. During that very difficult meeting, and after getting input from our district medical director, it was decided that, in the best interest of student health and safety, the 2019 season would be suspended. Fourteen to 18 players, many of who are new to the sport and very young, are not enough to safely play the game. Requiring the majority of them to play both offense and defense clearly posed significant health risks. Disappointedly, we created a thoughtful and thorough plan to notify students and parents. Players reported to practice on Thursday and a team meeting was held with their coaches and Ms. Bullard. As the staff talked to the players, a robo-call and electronic letter were sent to their parents. We wanted to respectfully ensure that everyone involved had all of the necessary information before anything became public.
Hindsight is always 20/20. Given national trends in 11-player, tackle football at the high school level, in addition to our local trajectory, we should not have been surprised by this year’s low turn-out for the sport here at OCSD. We recognize now, in retrospect, that we are guilty of holding out hope that our recruitment efforts would improve the situation. Our decision was not made hastily, without care or without significant consultation. As such, our district is committed to providing quality alternatives for our misplaced athletes this season and we are exploring several opportunities for the future that will accommodate this new reality.