Varsity Letter

If Fairfax cuts freshman sports, students must figure out life without sports

By Preston Williams
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Osman Abdullhi had to almost shout to be heard, the din in the Holmes Middle School gymnasium was so clamorous. He was among dozens of students playing basketball as part of a popular after-school activities program that gives middle school students something to do, sports and otherwise, during their too-old-for-daycare/too-young-to-be-on-their-own years.

Abdullhi knows he better get his fill of school sports now as an eighth-grader, because next year, his options to play sports in Fairfax County high schools could become more limited. Superintendent Jack D. Dale, among many other tough budgetary decisions, has proposed eliminating freshman sports -- football, volleyball, cheerleading and basketball -- as part of athletics trims that would save the county $1.8 million.

Abdullhi and his Holmes classmates, itching to slip into the red and white uniforms of Annandale High School next year, are left wondering: Why us? Why now? It's the same question eighth-graders across Fairfax County are asking.

"We've all been waiting since elementary school and middle school, so I think it would be a devastation to us that freshman sports are going to get cut off when this is our last year here," Abdullhi said Thursday afternoon. He is an aspiring tight end and middle linebacker.

"Everybody's talking about it," eighth-grader Joseph Wilson said during a break from a touch-football game outside, also part of the after-school program. "They want to play freshman football, basketball. They're disappointed."

"I can't go a whole year without sports, because that would mess my skills up," said eighth-grader Christian Collins, whose family is looking into private schools.

Remember when high school sports cuts meant not making a team, as opposed to there not being a team? So do the opponents of the elimination of freshman sports, who are making their cases many times over at public hearings Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday nights at Luther Jackson Middle School in Falls Church.

Online petitions, Facebook pages and other countermeasures have sprouted in opposition to the move. The outcry isn't so much about being denied the opportunity to put a ball through a hoop or get a running start on an athletic scholarship. It's about stunting a sense of belonging and acclimation at a vulnerable age. The sooner freshmen form bonds with their new school and their classmates, the better the chances those students have of being successful. Research, nationally and locally, says so.

Fairfax County surveys showed that between the 2005-06 and 2007-08 school years, students who participated in the middle school after-school program, of which sports is a large component, improved their grades, got into less trouble and joined fewer gangs. Teachers and parents overwhelmingly noted improvement.

"When you look at adult success, being successful in a career, in life, with partnerships, social success, all of that, the number one measure of adult success is participation in extracurricular activities in school," said Mark Emery, the after-school program administrator for Fairfax County schools. "It's not just keeping them busy. It's keeping them connected to the school and making them feel they are a part of the school environment. You want to grab that early."

Go and play rec-league ball during that county-induced gap year? Fine. Rec ball offers many benefits, but sinking roots at a new school is not one of them. To put it on an adult level: Would you rather play on a softball or bowling team from work, because it deepens your relationships with your colleagues and employer, or would you rather play with a bunch of men and women you might not see again when the season is over?

The freshman cuts would result in about 2,200 latchkey athletes, boys and girls who might not have the same incentive to stay on top of their grades as they would when playing sports. The hope is that many ninth-graders will find other school activities, but for some, it will be ball or bust.

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