With just a week left before the kickoff of high school football, it’s time to put to rest a couple of off-the-field topics that have dominated the offseason so we can concentrate on the positives aspects of the game.
First, it’s obvious everyone who saw the video of Davidson High School freshman quarterback Rodney Kim Jr. being brutally attacked in the school locker room was horrified by what they witnessed. There is much debate about who should be held responsible for the attack and what needs to be done to ensure a similar incident doesn’t happen again. But that debate shouldn’t cloud the fact that this young man should have never been subjected to such a brutal assault.
What to do about the veteran head coach in charge of the Davidson program? There were two reasonable options; the Mobile County Public School System chose neither.
One option was to recognize that, over a stellar, 15-year career as a head coach, Fred Riley deserved the benefit of the doubt when he said he did not condone this sort of behavior and it was not indicative of what was taught to Davidson High players. Riley has not only been successful on the field, but anyone who knows him will testify to his commitment to caring for his players off the field, whether it be providing them transportation or a meal or even clothes and a safe place to sleep. From my personal dealings with Riley, I would be proud to send my son to play for him.
The second option was for MCPSS to quickly decide the incident caught on video was too disturbing for the person in charge of the program to retain his job. Riley, who has already put in enough time in the public school system to retire, could have been informed that he would no longer be allowed to coach at Davidson and been given an opportunity to retire. This option would have allowed for a new coach to be put in place during the spring so as to assure the innocent and hard-working kids on the Davidson football team would be given the best chance to have a good season and a positive experience with a new coach.
Instead, Riley was allowed to stay on as coach through the beginning of fall camp before being placed on paid administrative leave 16 days before the Warriors kick off the season.
I don’t have all the information the people making this decision do, and maybe new information emerged that changed the way school officials had to act. But simply looking at this from the point of view of the students — which is what should matter — this played out in the worst way possible.
The second issue that has dominated the offseason is the competitive balance legislation instituted by the Alabama High School Athletic Association, the federal lawsuit filed by St. Paul’s in objection to the ruling and the AHSAA’s reaction to the lawsuit.
Competitive balance calls for all successful private schools to be bumped up to a higher classification in the sports where they excel. That punitive ruling is in addition to the 1.35 multiplier that all private schools already faced, meaning private schools were already playing in larger classifications.
St. Paul’s sued, hoping for an emergency injunction on the basis that having the Saints move up to Class 6A in football would create an unsafe challenge for them.
U.S. District Judge William H. Steele ruled against St. Paul’s, writing that the school had not “demonstrated a substantial likelihood of success” in its lawsuit.
“It is not the role of this Court to decide whether the Competitive Balance rule is the wisest, fairest, best or most efficient way of advancing the objective of promoting competitive balance in interscholastic athletics,” he wrote. “Whether the Court thinks it is a good rule or a bad rule is irrelevant. This Court may not substitute its judgment for that of the association.”
The lawsuit has caused a bitterness between some at St. Paul’s and some within the state association. That’s a shame, because St. Paul’s has not only been ultra-successful on the field, but also does it the right way by utilizing athletics to help build better young people and prepare them for later life.
“I feel wonderful,” St. Paul’s head football coach and athletic director Steve Mask told AL.com about starting fall practice. “It’s always a great day, a new beginning. Everyone is excited. We have a new schedule. We are going to some different venues. We are excited to get the season started. We are talking about football and football only, and that’s good.”
I could not agree more. This football season has a chance to include state champions from Mobile and Baldwin counties in six of the seven classifications. That includes St. Paul’s in Class 6A.
It’s time for the focus of high school sports fans to turn to the Friday night lights. There are still so many great stories being told and lifetime lessons being learned there.
Randy Kennedy writes a weekly column for Lagniappe and is co-host of “Sports Drive” every weekday from 3-6 p.m. on WNSP 105.5 FM, the country’s first all-sports FM station.