Show me the money: Budget cuts athletes from sports

By Matt Stacionis

Time and time again, the NIU athletics department has been criticized for not recruiting in the Rockford area.

Chief proponents of Rockford and its surroundings say that if NIU were to get its players locally, the Huskies could draw a stronger fan base.

But for as much as the issue has been brought to the agenda of sports writers and fans, it could soon die.

The $800,000 it costs to run high school boys’ and girls’ athletic programs in each of the four Rockford public high schools might be something placed on the district’s necessary $32 million chopping block.

That $800,000 figure may be a bit inflated, though. Of that money invested, $150,000 is made back on athletics each year, and the Rockford Sports Coalition offers $60,000 each year, leaving the actual operating cost of Rockford athletics at about $500,000.

Rockford previously cut sports during the 1976-77 school year in a move that proved to be disastrous. Rockford East had won back-to-back state championships in football with players like future NFL Super Bowl champion Ira Matthews, now retired. The year athletics were reinstated, East went downstate in basketball.

The school board has yet to reinstate school-sponsored sports at the middle school level. Those are handled by the Rockford Boys and Girls Club.

The school board put athletics on the chopping block again in 1991, but that plan ended dead where it started.

If high school athletics made it through a first time, then it should be all right now. But is the price of cutting high school athletics worth it?

If sports are cut, good athletes either would be forced to go to one of Rockford’s private schools, of which only Boylan is a Class AA school, or move to a surrounding area like Rockton, Loves Park, Belvidere, Poplar Grove, South Beloit, Marengo, Freeport or even DeKalb or Sycamore.

With that, the area likely would have four super teams in each of the four private high schools, with maybe a handful of football or basketball players leaving town. Players would be less likely to get scholarships with these new super teams, and athletics would become a first option for a school selection instead of the academics offered.

The Northern Illinois Conference, in which the Rockford schools compete, would be destroyed. The entire structure of Northern Illinois high school athletics might need to be rethought. That would cost much more than the $800,000 Rockford hopes to save.

Not all of the 3,000 students who participate in Rockford sports can pick up and move or afford one of the private school options. This leaves them out of luck.

It also sends a really great message for that student to build his life upon: “You come to school, go to class and then you’re not our problem. We don’t want anything to do with you, despite your ability.”

Even if all of those students crammed into the surrounding areas, they would not be guaranteed a chance to participate. The Illinois State High School Association limits the number of participants a team can have in sports, like basketball, for example.

That means somebody has got to go.

That also means positive role models in the Rockford public schools would be lost. Instead of practice time, the school board now can send its teens out to the streets to run wild after school gets out. And what is it that the school board suggests all of its students do instead of attend a basketball or football game on Friday night?

Not to mention, there’s the reaction from the tax-paying parents, who may feel it would be better to pay a little more each year to give their child a better opportunity.

“There would be too much public outcry,” said Rockford Register Star high school sports reporter Ed Glennon. “They put that on the list to get the public’s attention. They have to put it out there, but it’s not going to get past.”

Glennon said each year, the Rockford public schools list their top 100 students, five from each of the four public schools, and of those 100, about 60 are varsity athletes.

When all is said and done, if these cuts are made, the school board could use some of the money it has saved to run new banners in gym classes.

Teamwork: It’s important, even though we’ve taken away your teams.

Fair play: You guys never stood a chance.

Sportsmanship: Not as important as dollars and cents.

Winning attitude: Not in Rockford.

Future: Remember when you had one?

And when it’s all said and done, area basketball fans won’t have to worry about whether NIU has Rockford-area players.

They’ll have to watch NIU because they won’t have many other options.