Boston-area school faces prospect of no sports teams

As the town he grew to love gathered its residents in a crowded room to hear their fate, Mike Lahiff headed off to his daughter's softball game.

It seemed fitting. Sports is really what drew Lahiff to Stoneham, Mass. Politics dragged him out. He was the athletic director at Stoneham High School for 13 years, cheered the Spartans on to state championships, held the 2006-07 school year close to his heart because, he said, it was filled with "great kids."

"That," he said, "is the part I'm really going to miss."

Last week, Stoneham voters defeated a proposal that would have provided more tax dollars, prompting the unthinkable -- budget cuts that would wipe out high school sports. Stoneham received a reprieve on Tuesday night when the Board of Selectmen voted for a trash fee that could ultimately save sports and music and arts programs that were under the budgetary ax.

But in the best-case scenario, it appears to be a temporary fix, and the middle-class town that produced Olympic skating star Nancy Kerrigan and major league baseball player Joe Vitiello could see empty stadiums and a mass exodus of student-athletes migrating to other schools.

And it could happen anywhere.

"I would imagine it could," said John Gillis, assistant director for the National Federation of State High School Associations. "Participation fees are being charged in a different range [of schools] from inner-city Chicago to Mercer Island, an upscale island in the Seattle metropolitan area. Despite these fees and fundraising efforts, sometimes they have no choice but to pull the plug altogether."

Gillis called it "extreme" for a high school to eliminate all of its athletic programs, but it has happened in Massachusetts. The Winthrop school board slashed high school sports in 2004, but boosters quickly stepped up to reinstate it with donations and fees for athletes. Gillis said a fraction, maybe 10 percent, of high schools throughout the country use participation fees.

Stoneham already imposes a $250 user fee on each athlete, per season, with a family cap of $1,000. For local track star Christina Izzicupo, it's asking her family to write three hefty checks per school year, for soccer and indoor and outdoor track.

"It's awful," Izzicupo said. "It doesn't take a lot of money to hold a track meet; maybe a few bucks for an official or two. All we do is run around in a circle."

Stoneham has this problem, in large part, Lahiff said, because a good chunk of the community is made up of untaxable state park land. Frustrated by the cuts, the fees and the uncertainty, Lahiff recently took the athletic director job at Watertown, a nearby school that doesn't charge its athletes user fees.

"How is it that some communities are paying through the roof and others aren't paying anything?" Lahiff said. "It seems to be a fairness issue. To me, every kid should get the same education and be offered the same opportunities. It shouldn't be any different from Winchester to Stoneham to Boston. Everybody should be able to participate."

The issue has weighed heavily on the minds of Stoneham's younger folk. They showed up Tuesday night, their futures hinged to complexities such as overrides and trash fees. Izzicupo has a 4.37 GPA and hustles from class to practices, getting home just around dinnertime, and still doesn't understand it.

She was in Indianapolis last week for the U.S. Junior Nationals and was just about to run the hurdles when she heard the news that she might not be able to play sports her senior year in Stoneham. Izzicupo, who is getting letters from a number of Division I schools for track, had a hard time focusing.

"This is a big deal for me," she said. "I tried not to think about it, but when I got home, I started to think about it.

"A world without high school sports? I can't explain it. You need to have sports. It's a necessity. They teach you about life, teach you about competition. It's not just about competing. It's learning about cooperating. It's a great experience, and I think it helps you grow as an individual."

Lahiff worries that Tuesday night's news will lull Stoneham into a false sense of security. The budget problems are still there, and the school's extracurricular activities are on borrowed time. Lahiff knows this. He's supposed to officially start in Watertown next week, but he plans to skip most of his vacation to work at both schools, which are 12 miles apart.

"I want to do whatever I can for these kids," he said.

"I think sports are such an important part of a kid's life. It keeps them connected to a school. And it's not just sports, it's the arts. … As long as kids have something to connect to, that's key."

Elizabeth Merrill is a senior writer for ESPN.com. She can be reached at merrill2323@hotmail.com.