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Section VI reversal proves sports reveal character – of a community

Rod Watson

I wish I felt better about the reversal, under pressure, that allows Buffalo Public Schools football teams to keep competing against their suburban counterparts instead of being relegated to a separate but unequal league.

But that Martin Luther King Jr. holiday decision brings only a muted sense of relief.

Given the racial attitudes that still permeate parts of Western New York, it has never been a surprise that ideas like a countywide school system never got off the ground. Neither did the prospect of letting city students trapped in failing schools transfer to the suburbs.

But sports was always supposed to be the mythical melting pot, where black, white and Hispanic kids could come together on a level playing field before returning to their segregated neighborhoods, lifestyles and opportunities.

The effort to tilt that field to the disadvantage of city schools athletes reveals a fear that too much equality is not necessarily a good thing, even in play.

There is no other way to read the foiled bid to isolate Buffalo football teams after they gave up their Harvard Cup league a decade ago to join the Section VI Football Federation and compete against top-flight suburban competition.

And compete they did – so well that they were no longer welcome to catch the eye of college scouts who track the prestigious section.

That would have meant city kids would have less chance not only to compete on the field, but also to compete for the college scholarships that could put them on a path to the middle class or better.

"It’s about helping our kids get into better colleges, get recruited," said Craig Middlebrooks, who has coached football at several Buffalo schools and still volunteers in retirement.

"It’s bigger than football," Middlebrooks said, before Section VI officials reversed course.

When he heard about the reversal, he called it "fantastic."

"Wow!" was the reaction of Dwayne Taplin, chairman of the newly formed Coalition for Fair, Free, and Equitable Athletics, a roughly 15-member group that came together to fight against the change and for the city’s student athletes.

But despite their excitement over the Section VI reversal, neither man was naive enough to believe it is the end of a fight that never should have been in the first place.

"I would like to hope that our efforts did not go unheard," said Taplin.

"The fight has really just begun," he added, explaining that the group will remain active and vigilant because a one-year moratorium on such changes is not good enough.

He’s right.

I wouldn’t be surprised if Section VI officials come back with another, more subtle, plan to try to accomplish the same ends.

Section VI football reverses decision; Buffalo will still compete with suburbs

"We might have to revisit this all over again," Taplin said.

But Middlebrooks noted that, if they do, this year’s experience will enable the community to be better prepared to fight it.

It’s a fight they shouldn’t have to undertake.

Middlebrooks noted that there was no problem back when the city teams were doormats and weren’t threatening to replace suburban schools and their athletes at the top of the standings and snag the scholarship offers.

But that soon changed. As city schools got exposed to better competition, coaches picked up new techniques and strategies and it lifted the performance of the city kids.

That’s how integration and exposure are supposed to work in every profession when people of color are given equal opportunity. The results benefit society as a whole.

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Except in this case.

"I knew there would be a problem when I saw South Park and McKinley in the championship" last year, said Middlebrooks, referring to two city teams.

But no matter the issue – whether it’s exclusion from a sports league or honoring King’s legacy with a paid holiday – the reactionaries can always cloak the rationale in nonracial language.

In this case, Section VI officials said the change would, in addition to reviving old rivalries, cut down on travel time – an explanation that doesn’t fly in a metro area that is not that big and where you can get anywhere in 20 to 30 minutes.

Once you strip away the rhetoric and look at the effects of such policies, the impact always is clear. In fact, after being rebuffed by Section VI, Buffalo’s petition to be included in the Erie County Interscholastic Conference also was rejected.

It was nice to see some suburban coaches voice support for the Section VI reversal. And talks continue, with Buffalo politicians and other leaders pressing for a permanent solution.

If this really was an innocent mistake made by officials who were merely oblivious, not malevolent, there will be no such attempts in the future to undermine city school and their student athletes, even by less-obvious means.

But we’ll see.

The cliche is that sports teach character.

It’s more accurate to say they can reveal character – not just of individuals, but of a community.

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