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Middle schools may add football

The Hillsborough School Board must sign off on athletic officials' recommendation of boys-only flag football.

By MELANIE AVE

© St. Petersburg Times, published April 28, 2001


TAMPA -- Three little words not shouted by fevered Hillsborough middle-school athletes for years may be returning: down, set, hut.

This fall, if the School Board approves, football will make a comeback after an eight-year absence, when a change in philosophy and concerns over funding sacked the sport.

But it won't be the kind of full-contact football once found at junior high schools and still played in high schools.

Athletic officials are recommending boys-only flag football in all 36 middle schools, expanding the program beyond the track, basketball, soccer and volleyball now offered. They also want to convert the coed volleyball team to girls-only because of laws requiring gender equity in athletics.

Hillsborough will be one of the few local school systems to offer middle school football.

The sport is not played in Pinellas or Polk counties, but it has been a part of the Pasco school system for decades.

"Kids need an outlet," said Linda Applegate, president of Hillsborough County's PTA council. "Even though it's competitive, it gives them a thing to look at and say "I'm on a basketball team' or "I'm on a football team.' "

Middle school activists tout the benefits of sports, but with a couple of exceptions: All children who want to participate should be allowed to play, and physical contact should be kept to a minimum.

"The early adolescent body isn't made to take the rigor of athletics, the banging around," said Santo Pino, executive secretary of the Florida League of Middle Schools and president of the National Middle School Association. "The body hasn't fully developed."

District athletic director Vernon Korhn said the emphasis will be on participation, not cutting children from teams because of their abilities.

Boys will be placed on seven-member teams playing hourlong games. Defenders grab a flag worn around the waist instead of tackling the ball carrier. Nearby schools will compete against one another.

"I think you have to have healthy competition," said Dwayne Renaker, who started the youth football program known as Pop Warner in Hillsborough, Pinellas and Pasco counties four years ago. "Anything to an extreme is bad."

The benefits are not just physical.

"The more kids we get involved, the better off we are," said Renaker, a school psychologist. "The research is real clear. We know kids involved in extracurricular activities are less likely to have other problems."

The recent move to expand the middle school sports program is a vast change from 1993, when junior highs converted to middle schools and the School Board cut sports programs.

In 1998, years of efforts by sports advocates to reinstate middle school athletics culminated with an estimated annual cost of $600,000. That is too much money, they were told.

They slashed the cost to about $200,000. School Board members said okay, but only if the money came from the private sector.

New York Yankees owner George Steinbrenner, who lives in Tampa, came to the rescue with a $200,000 donation that allowed about 6,500 children to play sports the first year. He gave another $200,000 in 1999.

That was all it took for the School Board to fund middle school sports. With no more private funding, an estimated 9,000 children are participating at a cost of $390,000.

"We saw the value of it even more, that it was a good thing for kids," said board member Carolyn Bricklemyer.

A task force began meeting last fall to develop a way for more students to be involved.

The recommendation: flag football.

"Football has always been a sport that's a natural attractor," said Korhn, the district's athletic director.

The School Board will consider the changes to the middle school program sometime in May. It is expected to cost about $35,000 more. The board also is being asked to approve charging a $1 admission fee for students and $2 for parents at all athletic events.

"I'm hopeful," said Jackie Heard, the district's middle school director. "Charging the fees would more than offset the costs. Some of those games have 500 people at them. They're very, very popular among middle school parents and students."

- Melanie Ave covers education and can be reached at (813) 226-3400.

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