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The football players at Bennett High School can thank their coach for the varsity letters they received this fall. And not just because he helped show them how to play football.

Coach Larry Veronica bought the letters for his players. The Buffalo School District won't.

Perhaps the unkindest cuts of all have befallen the city's interscholastic sports. Not buying varsity letters for high school athletes isn't the half of it.

The problem is money. Buffalo spends an average of $17 per student on interscholastic sports. Suburban districts spend an average of $50.

"Most of our problems stem from a lack of funding," Veronica said.

Not adequately funding high school sports means:

High school competition is limited to varsity sports. The Board of Education does not fund freshman and junior varsity teams; where they do exist, they are coached by volunteers.

"It's very difficult to develop players and bring them along," said Veronica, who coaches basketball and tennis as well as football. "We have juniors and seniors coming out for sports for the first time."

Many facilities have slipped into deplorable condition because of years of neglect. City Honors has been city swimming champion 11 years -- but it has no pool. Bennett's football team practices on a field little more than half the regulation width.

"There are a lot of people who used to play football who don't come out because of the facilities," said Brandon Williams, a graduate of South Park High School who was selected the best football player in the state last year.

The city produces few top-flight athletes. No graduate of a city high school has been recruited to a major Division I school in eight years. Williams is one of the few football players to join a major program in recent years.

Some talented athletes leave or avoid city schools. For example, Jeremiah Wilkes of Burgard Vocational High School was the top-rated junior basketball player in the city last year. He was named second-team All-Western New York. For his senior year, he transferred to Cheektowaga High School.

Talented athletes might be forced out of the city altogether if Superintendent Albert Thompson's preliminary budget is approved. Thompson has proposed the elimination of interscholastic sports altogether.

High school sports may seem trivial to some, but University at Buffalo Professor Jeremy Finn said numerous studies have shown a link between student achievement and participation in extracurricular activities, including sports. One study of students likely to drop out of school showed that involvement in extracurricular activities was a factor that distinguished those who did well in school from those who did not.

"There's definitely a correlation," he said, "especially for at-risk students."

Extracurricular activities like sports help form a bond with school, he added. The stronger the bond, the more likely students are to stay in school.

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