When the school board started talking about eliminating extracurricular activities — including all sports — Tom Willison never believed it would really happen.
Grove City High had a band that had won national championships and a football team that routinely drew crowds of 10,000 or more on Friday nights, where the stadium was the place to be in his town of 35,000.
Then a 2009 budget shortfall of $8 million, and a failed vote to pass a levy to cover it, claimed all fall sports at Grove City, one of four schools in the South-Western school district of Ohio to eliminate all extracurricular activities.
The school, he says, was devastated.
"It was so odd," said Willison, Grove City's athletic director and assistant principal. "It's hard to explain for somebody who didn't go through it."
He said the school hallways and lunchroom were eerily calm and almost lifeless. The once energetic campus was a ghost town every day by 4 p.m.
Fridays were no different than Mondays, and everyone hates Mondays. School spirit had been broken.
"There was no energy," Willison said.
We are finding out that Ohio might not be as far away as we thought, that Florida's big cities might not be so different from Grove City and that too big to fail does not apply to school districts.
In Jacksonville's Duval County, where roughly 15,000 high school athletes compete, sports might be headed toward a showdown with the budget chopping block.
School board chairman W.C. Gentry recently caused a stir when he told local media he is almost certain sports will have to be chopped if the $3.3 billion in education cuts proposed by Gov. Rick Scott pass.
And with a projected $97 million shortfall for Duval County, even a smaller cut might not be enough.
"There's no question we'll have to do away with sports," Gentry told the Florida Times-Union.
From coast to coast, school districts are desperately seeking ways to close budget shortfalls, and in increasing cases killing high school sports is part of the solution. After years of chopping, there's nothing left to cut, some say. And federal stimulus money has run out.
Due to cuts each of the past five years, counties in Tampa Bay have already lost hundreds of millions of dollars. This upcoming cut will be the steepest.
Pasco County is looking at $60 million. Pinellas is bracing for $86 million. And Hillsborough is looking at more than $100 million. If these numbers are even close, athletics will not survive untouched.
That could mean the end of middle school or junior varsity sports or doing away with specific sports.
It will probably mean a cut to supplements, including those paid to coaches. It could lead to pay-for-play options.
And of course the worst-case scenario — no sports at all.
In Jacksonville, the suggestion is galvanizing the public against severe cuts. In Sacramento, Calif., superintendent Jonathon Raymond hopes his proposal to eliminate sports has the same effect.
"The reality is that with athletics, people take notice," he told the Sacramento Bee. "If it's the only thing to get people to step up and mobilize, it's worth it. Frankly, the public outcry is needed."
• • •
Losing an invaluable slice of Americana resonates with people as much as proposals to gut math and science and teacher salaries.
That doesn't make it right or logical, but it is fact.
Athletics fosters spirit and community, and there is a lot to be said for that.
Sports also teach teamwork and hard work, build character, present scholarship opportunities and, maybe most important, are the carrot at the end of the stick for students who otherwise would be idle and failing.
Sports are the best form of dropout prevention we have.
Still, making the argument that athletics — games, competition — should be spared at the expense of, well, anything is a difficult one to make.
"It pits people against one another," Hillsborough County athletic director Lanness Robinson said. "I wouldn't want to be the people that have to make the final decision."
We are a month away from knowing how deep the cuts will be and a few more from officially dealing with them.
There are six subcommittees and various focus groups exploring options in Pinellas County.
In Pasco, county athletic director Phil Bell said he is already working with athletic directors on ways to trim the budget, looking for ways to lessen the potential blow.
"We want to get out ahead of this," he said. "But no decisions have been made. From talking to other people in other counties and around the state, the budget has been an issue the last seven years. It always seemed to work out.
"This year, though, there seems to be maybe a little more (nervousness), like at what point is it all not going to work out? I hear that a little more this year. Have we hit that threshold, what are we going to do and where is the money going to come from?"
Robinson said he is taking a wait-and-see attitude, though the looming budget crunch is clearly on everyone's mind.
"Am I concerned? Yes," Robinson said. "But you don't want to jump the gun."
• • •
Grove City had a happy ending.
After its football, soccer and tennis seasons were wiped out, a contentious vote in November 2009 for a levy passed by merely 413 votes, adding $227 in taxes to every $100,000 of property value but raising more than $18 million.
A pay-for-play fee was added as well — $150 per student per sport. The marching band cost is $100 per student.
It is expected to keep extracurricular activities safe for a few years. When football returned to Grove City last fall, 13,000 showed up for the season opener.
But the problems haven't gone away.
Willison says neighboring school districts are struggling. Levy votes are being put on ballots and failing miserably, as the unfortunate and misguided idea that any tax is a bad one seems to have settled in.
He said one district is looking at a pay-for-play option, charging $500 per student; another might charge $600.
"But who will pay that to run cross country or play tennis?" he asks.
In another district, middle school sports are being cut, and yet another is proposing cutting sports all together.
It is hard to imagine a high school without sports.
Gymnasiums without the familiar squeak of gym shoes and clap of bouncing balls.
Bands. Cheerleaders. Competition.
Fridays without football.
"It can happen anywhere, and it is," Willison said.
John C. Cotey can be reached at [email protected]