On Tuesday, Oct. 8, the Enterprise Rotary Club hosted the executive director of the Alabama High School Athletic Association, Steve Savarese, as its guest speaker.
Savarese touched on a number of topics during his speech, including private schools, financial aid for high school students, officials and a number of other topics.
One of Savarese’s first topics to touch on was a former student of his, NFL Hall of Famer Terrell Owens. Savarese taught and coached at the high school level for more than 40 years and was Owens’ high school football coach at Benjamin Russell High School.
“Terrell Owens used to babysit our children,” Savarese said of the former All-Pro. “That’s just how much we trusted him. There are a lot of lessons you can learn – as a coach – from kids like Terrell Owens. No. 1 is that if you absolutely truly love them they will love and respect you back.”
Savarese said that as a coach he never allowed his players to wear jewelry, bandanas or grow facial hair. Those rules stuck with Owens even after earning an NFL contract.
“Terrell signed with the San Francisco 49ers and he (bought) two of the most beautiful diamond earrings that I wish that I could afford to buy my wife,” Savarese continued. “He came back to see coach after he signed with the 49ers and he walked in the door – we were in the weight room with the kids – and the first thing he did was took those earrings out and put them in his pocket.
“Loving the kids and treating them fairly will pay dividends in the end. It’s unfortunate that we have coaches now that will treat kids differently based on what they can do for them on the athletic field.”
Savarese also pointed to treatment of officials as being a problem not just in Alabama but the entire country.
“If things keep up, we’re not going to have (referees) anymore,” Savarese emphasized. “Why would anyone want to go out and call a game when you’re going to suffer tremendous abuse (from fans and parents)? Why would anyone go out and call a game when someone films the entire game but if an official makes one mistake someone puts that one mistake up on Facebook and scrutinizes them?”
Savarese said that the way that parents act out towards officiating at games tends to be embarrassing at times and that parents might even be able to learn some lessons from the kids themselves.
“When you have 155,000 kids participating in sports and only about 200 kids (each year) get ejected, that’s pretty good,” Savarese said. “I really wish sometimes that we as parents would act as good as the kids. That’s why we can’t get (referees) anymore.”
Savarese said that he believes that if things continue on as is there will be a national crisis in regards to simply not having enough officials.
“Our median age of officials is 54 years old right now,” Savarese said. “In other places they have to play on Thursday and Friday because there aren’t enough officials for Friday night.
“We haven’t gotten to that point yet but we’re getting close. Unless we start treating these guys better we won’t have them in the future, and if we don’t officials we don’t have any games.”
It wasn’t all doom and gloom from Savarese as he pointed out that the AHSAA has grown from just 12 championship sports a decade ago to 26 now. He also said that student participation – especially with girls – is increasing.
“You hear all the time that participation in high schools – especially football – is decreasing,” Savarese continued. “Well, football (participation) is not decreasing in Alabama. We went through a 2-3 year period where our numbers went down less than 1 percent but this year they’re up 3 percent.
“Our girls sports continue to grow the most, though. Female sports are ever growing in our state and the greatest increase in participation has been in female sports.”
Savarese also said that the addition of e-sports to the AHSAA has been a big benefit for member schools.
“You say ‘what are y’all doing with video games?’ when I mention e-sports,” Savarese said. “Well, 98.5 percent of students that participate in e-sports do not participate in any on the field activities.
“We took this as an opportunity to participate with our national organization to provide kids a platform where they still stay and learn with a coach after school rather than go home and get on video games anyway.”
The topic of private schools, recruiting and financial aid – specifically in regards to Enterprise High School’s tuition – also came up. While Savarese emphasized that recruiting in any form is still very illegal and will not be tolerated by the AHSAA, he clarified that public schools like Enterprise could in fact offer financial aid to students that want to attend the school but simply can’t afford it, just like the scholarships private schools offer.
“If (Enterprise) wants to give relief for the tuition they can do that as long as they do it in the integrity of the rules,” Savarese said. “That’s up to the school system. Recruiting, however, is illegal in any format everywhere.”
Savarese said that while financial aid could be given to students, any student receiving financial aid would have to sit out a year of competition before playing, and that goes for private schools and public schools.
On the topic of private schools, Savarese pointed to the passing of the Alabama Accountability Act in 2013 as being a catalyst for many historically unsuccessful private school athletic programs becoming some of the more successful programs in the state currently.
“Up until 2007 McGill-Toolen had never had two winning seasons back-to-back (in football),” Savarese continued. “Before 2007 I never had anyone ask me about McGill-Toolen because they just weren’t very successful.
“The Alabama Accountability Act provides public school funding for private school scholarships. That provided more opportunities for public school children to attend private schools.”
Savarese said that those private schools that do give out academic scholarships to athletes still have to abide by the same rules as public schools, meaning any student receiving financial aid has to sit out a year after first receiving the aid and recruiting is still illegal.
He also pointed to the AHSAA’s competitive formula balance as a way that member schools have tried to keep things as fair as possible for public schools.
The AHSAA’s competitive balance rule moves up athletic programs in classification that are extremely successful in a three-year span – using a point system for postseason success – but Savarese said the playing field can never be truly equal.
“To come up with a plan to make everyone equal is unrealistic,” Savarese said. “We can’t put (private schools) in a separate division, which has been looked at. There simply aren’t enough schools to do that.
“What we try to do is create a platform for our kids to play on the most level playing field we can possibly provide, while understanding that winning isn’t the overall objective. That objective is educating students through sport and that’s what we try to do.”