In the main entrance to the Lackawanna High School gym, there is a display case which includes its sports teams' trophies. Included is the 2005 Section VI Class B football championship plaque.
Section VI says the Steelers have to give the plaque back. The section has ruled that they're being stripped of their championship.
Why? The short answer is that Lackawanna used an ineligible player during the 2005 season.
Then there's the long answer, the one that, in this reporter's opinion, says the plaque shouldn't move an inch.
In fall of 2005, a student-athlete was attending Baker Victory Services' residential treatment center, which is located within the Lackawanna district. Part of the student's mental health program at Baker Victory was to have him involved in extracurricular activities. A social worker accompanied him to the first Lackawanna practice and even attended a few more practices to check his progress.
"We thought since he lived in our district," said Lackawanna coach Bruce Lakso, "he would be eligible at our school."
The player saw just a few minutes of action in the late stages of two Class B South contests and one nonleague game, all of which were blowout wins for the Steelers. He made a total of three tackles. He did not play in the playoffs.
Section VI learned at some point during this past 2006 season -- no one knows how -- that Lackawanna may have used an ineligible player. After an investigation, Section VI found that the player was ineligible because the state rules require a student must take classes at the school he or she competes for.
In the state rule book, if you use an ineligible player, the penalty is that you forfeit the game he played in. It doesn't matter how much he played or how much he contributed.
"It's cut and dried," said Section VI President Chuck Amo. "The student participated in three games . . . According to state eligibility standards, because of that participation, Lackawanna needed to forfeit those games. The state association is very clear: they don't measure contributions in a particular contest. If you participate in a whole game or for one play, the punishment is the same. If an ineligible player is used in an interscholastic competition, the result is a forfeiture."
The two league losses would have made the Steelers' Class B South record 4-3 and left them out of the playoffs. So the section ruled that Southwestern, which lost to Lackawanna, 24-14, in the Class B final at Ralph Wilson Stadium, be declared the champion.
Amo called Lackawanna "very forthcoming" and lauded its cooperation in the section's investigation into what he called "an honest mistake." Lackawanna never circumvented any system or snuck any player on the field, and it knows it made a mistake.
"If I look strictly at the rule book, without any gray areas, I can understand the decision [to forfeit the games]," said Lackawanna Superintendent Paul G. Hashem. "They went by the rule book. I'm just saying maybe there was a way to look at it differently if they chose to. When you start adding all this stuff together, the punishment doesn't fit the crime."
Lackawanna's intent was to help a student-athlete who needed it, and the player was not a factor in Lackawanna winning the championship.
At some point, couldn't Section VI take a look at the big picture -- a year after Lackawanna has won the title -- and realize that while the Steelers made a mistake, it's not worth taking the title away?
Instead, Lackawanna received a letter from Section VI which read: "The executive committee agreed that Lackawanna must forfeit its 2005 Section VI Class B championship and return the Section VI plaque."
Lackawanna still has the plaque because the school district's lawyer is investigating what appeals it can file. Here's one person's protest: Section VI, at your next meeting, someone make a motion for common sense. Note that Lackawanna used an ineligible player in three games in 2005. Add three losses to its record.
And keep the Steelers' plaque in their trophy case.