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    Monday, November 28, 2022

    ECC football falling behind the rest of Connecticut

    A notable exception to the CIAC-driven morass that impedes the progress of high school sports in Connecticut comes the football scheduling alliance, a forward-thinking plan aimed to fill schedules with out of conference games between schools of similar enrollments and program strengths.

    And yet the alliance’s noble mission, to schedule games based on equity, illustrates how far the Eastern Connecticut Conference is falling behind the rest of the state.

    In two weeks and 16 games of alliance play this season, ECC schools are 6-10, outscored by more than 100 combined points. And while examples from fixed points in time aren’t always abiding, this season’s struggles of ECC football programs underscores how some societal trends afflict this corner of the world.

    It wasn’t all that long ago when the paths to improve football programs weren’t any more complicated than 1) hire a good coach; and 2) keep the weight room open 24/7/365. The game’s evolution mirrors the rhythms of society: The haves have a two-touchdown lead over the have-nots.


    Most ECC opponents in the alliance this year have come from the Central Connecticut, Southern Connecticut, Fairfield County and South-West conferences, where median household incomes are consistently and considerably bigger. Players in such programs have access to private instruction and skill development, private workouts and pricey summer camps – perks that many families in eastern Connecticut cannot afford.

    Example: A number of college football programs in Connecticut (Yale, Wesleyan, Southern, Central) offer summer camps to high school kids. High school coaches “work” the camps and get many of their players, whose families can afford the camp fees, to attend. The kids get instructional time with college coaches and then often by their high school coaches out of season, during what coaches across the state widely refer to as the “team period” of these camps.

    So if you happen to coach in, say, Fairfield County, much of your team is together because families can afford the costs. The residual effect is a competitive advantage, given that it’s practice time and instructional time kids in poorer communities cannot access.

    Yale ran nine different one-day camps in the summer of 2021. Registration fees were $160 per session, per the camp website. How many families in New London, for example, (or really throughout the ECC) could afford to send their kids to even one day? How many families around here could afford repeated registration costs?

    The median household income in Connecticut per 2020 census data is $79,043. Ron Frechette, who is coaching soccer in Plainfield, engineered an exhaustive study recently of median incomes in the towns ECC schools are located. Frechette found that 10 of the 18 schools he studied are at or below the median threshold.

    Note: There are 19 schools in the ECC. Frechette could not determine accurate numbers for St. Bernard because of its ability to draw from multiple towns.

    Among the conclusions drawn: It is harder for families in towns who do not meet median thresholds to afford the same private instruction and camp access as families in more affluent towns. Frechette’s findings are supported by a recent report by Hearst Connecticut Media:

    “Whereas the median Connecticut household earned $79,855 a year from 2016-2020, according to the U.S. Census Bureau, the average high school sports champion over the past 10 years, excluding private schools, came from towns and cities with a median household income of $123,349,” Hearst reported.

    Not one town in eastern Connecticut even comes close to that number. As a reference point: The median household income in East Lyme, a town often dismissed as a haven for “rich” people, is $96,023. New London’s, meanwhile, is $47,424.

    It should be noted that New London opened the season with an alliance game at Joel Barlow in Redding (and lost 41-14). The Redding household median income is $135,928. There is no denying that New London has a deeper, richer football tradition. But the authors of such tradition – Tommie Major, Jamal Johnson, Ambrose Fletcher – played in a much simpler time. As the sport evolves commensurate to the rhythms of society, most of us can identify with the words of comedian Jackie Mason: “I have enough money to last me the rest of my life, unless I buy something.”

    Mike Ellis, the coach at Fitch, whose team was plenty competitive in the alliance this year (beat Guilford, lost to Berlin) went 8-2 last year. The Falcons missed the playoffs because of two losses in the alliance to Fairfield Prep and New Fairfield, two towns whose median incomes are more than twice Groton’s.

    And yet something Ellis tried two summers ago – a pilot program of offseason skill development – is at the heart of helping the have-nots reclaim some of the competitive disadvantage.

    "The CIAC was going to do what they called a 'Summer Series' (in the summer of 2021) in response to COVID and allow some form of coaching and skill development for everybody,” Ellis said last season. “Get groups of schools together, charge $75 per kid and let the coaches instruct. It got canceled because they told us only about 40 percent of the coaches in the state were in favor of it.”

    Ellis, who reasoned that 1) 40 percent is still an appreciable number and 2) offseason instruction was more important than ever because of COVID-related inactivity, approached CIAC officials with an idea of a pilot program he discussed with then-NFA coach Jason Bakoulis. They would gather Fitch, NFA, Waterford, Windham and Bacon Academy together, adhere to the parameters CIAC had established for the Summer Series (except charging them $75 apiece) and proceed with instruction related to football, skill development, sportsmanship and leadership.

    “CIAC got back to us and said we'd be in violation of several CIAC rules if we went forward,” Ellis said.

    Translation: The Summer Series was a great idea when $75 per kid went to CIAC. It wasn't such a great idea when the $75 disappeared. And the fact that the New Canaans kept practicing and the Fitchs didn't?

    Let them eat cake.

    I’m not naïve enough to believe that other factors aren’t contributing to the ECC’s football failures. The coaching is lousy in some outposts. Participation is down across the country. But for my $.02: They could have Bill Parcells here. Coaches in other parts of Connecticut have greater opportunities to maximize their talent. The scoreboards say as much now.

    CIAC could fix this. All its officials need to do is look one state to the north. The Massachusetts governing body of high school sports decided recently to implement an “equity formula” to determine its state tournament divisions, focusing on high-needs kids, English as a second language learners, how many students need public assistance, transitional aid and how many are homeless or in foster care.

    “We conflate the ideas of equity and equality and … that’s not helpful to our member schools and districts,” Fitchburg athletic director Craig Antocci told the Boston Globe. “The idea of using baseline enrollment without factoring in external factors impacts districts around the state. That’s taking an equal measure and it’s not fair. Equity is about looking at each district and demographic and treating it fairly so we can all start at the same point.”

    But then, such ideas about equity have been typed many times before here in abject futility. Need proof about the current inequity? Look at ECC football.

    This is the opinion of Day sports columnist Mike DiMauro

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